"I have never worked for a woman in my whole life."

So says Patti Husic, who is determined to make that a less common reality for other female bankers in her state.

Husic became president and CEO of Centric Bank in Harrisburg, Pa., through her own engineering. In a daring feat that came about under unusual circumstances, she put together a deal six years ago to buy the troubled bank where she worked and rebranded it. Now she wants to help other women get to the same level.

As the new chairman of the Pennsylvania Bankers Association-and only the third female to hold this title in its 118 years-she is spearheading a project intended to give women across the state the competence, confidence, and connections they need to become senior leaders. It launches this fall, with a daylong workshop unambiguously titled, "How to Navigate to the C-Suite."

Husic says many women get stuck in middle management, as a survey she conducted with the association confirms.

Out to change this, Husic put in two years of work to usher a Women in Banking initiative into existence. She first brought up the idea during a board retreat in August 2011, just after she became an officer of the association.

The need for such a program seemed apparent to her. Women make up the majority of bank employees overall, and even outnumber men at the middle management level, Husic says. "But not at C-level."

The board retreat itself was a case in point. "When you look at the board table, out of 22, I'm it. I'm the only female sitting there," she says. (Since then, two other women have joined her, in part because she was vocal about diversity during nominations.)

There was some resistance to her idea at first. "One board member said, 'Why would we do an exclusive thing for women?'"

But she got the support she needed to at least do a focus group, which consisted of 17 women from banks of different sizes. Soon after she pared this to a working group of five who helped outline ideas for the program.

Husic says she swayed the skeptics with practical arguments. She notes, for example, that the association gets most of its participation from bankers at the male-dominated executive level, even though 58 percent of its members are women. "It's important we do something to get them more engaged," she says.

Her research cemented support. A survey the association sent to its female members got a remarkable 69 percent response rate, and the majority said they would benefit from a program like the one under consideration—which convinced the board to move forward.

It is worth noting, Husic says, that more than 40 percent of the respondents said they are in middle management, and that 46 percent of the respondents said they have more than 20 years of experience.

Husic looked into what other state associations offer for female bankers and, though she learned a lot from those in neighboring New York and Maryland, both of which have an annual women's conference, she did not find a program comparable to the one she has in mind that encompasses all the needs she hopes to meet.

She also says helping women in the pipeline now is not her only goal. "The end game? We want young women to think 'banker' when they're asked what they want to be when they grow up."

That's not how it went with her exactly.

Husic started out as an auditor. She often worked with bank clients, though, and enjoyed them best of all. Five years in, a bank lured her away and she spent almost 15 years there before it was sold. She landed at Vartan Bank after that, only to discover soon after she arrived in the summer of 2004 that it had some significant challenges. Complicating matters further, the owner died suddenly later that year.

His family held on to the bank at first, but decided to sell after receiving a regulatory order. Husic, the bank's president at the time, worked with seven potential buyers on due diligence—"It was like a revolving door," she says—and saw staff morale erode as the process wore on.

She finally decided to end all the uncertainty herself. Husic talked to a few potential investors about joining her in buying Vartan and sold them on her vision of the kind of community bank she wanted to create. She had a letter of intent within a week.

"I'm kind of a fix-it-type person," she says.

The agreement gave her 58 days to raise $12 million of capital and 45 days to get regulatory approval. All told she had 120 days to complete the sale or lose her own initial investment. She also had to recruit new executives and directors and come up with a rebranding strategy during that stretch.

"Keep in mind, this wasn't my full-time job," says Husic, who still had to help run the bank. "Also, I was a single mother raising my son."

Raising the stakes, she had liquidated her retirement account to fund her portion of the investment and her son was just a few years away from starting college.

She had her doubts along the way, particularly when cashing in the 401(k). But a friend said: What is a 401(k) but a collection of companies you are betting on? Would you rather bet on these companies or on yourself?

"That did it," Husic says.

She managed to wrap up everything required in 113 days, seven days early. In hindsight, she says, "it probably would have been easier to have started from scratch rather than acquire a troubled institution."

But she is satisfied with the results. Centric is healthy and growing, and, she points out, three of its five senior managers are women.

Husic stresses that she believes in always hiring the best candidate, regardless of gender. But she says this requires putting in the extra effort it might take to find qualified female candidates.

To achieve more parity in senior roles, Husic advises others to go beyond mentoring and giving advice, to actually advocate for promising women.

"Open the door for them," she says. "'Let me make the introduction to this bank. I know this organization has an opening.' I think that's what women need to do. Men have done it for years."

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