Detroit Banker Sandra Pierce Tries to Save Her Hometown

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Sandra Pierce is at the center of a political dogfight in one of the most troubled U.S. cities — and that's her night job.

Pierce, recently hired to lead FirstMerit's (FMER) expansion into Michigan, is spending her off time as chair of the financial advisory board for the city of Detroit. Its task is monumental: getting the city's chronically in-the-red budget under control, while promoting a new image.

"Great things are happening in Detroit," says Pierce, a Motown native. "The central business district is absolutely in the middle of a transformation. But there are still very serious problems, including the debt load."

Several bankers have been pressed into civic roles lately — in some cases, roles that brought plenty of public scrutiny. Early last year Bank of New York Mellon President Karen Peetz was elected chair of the board of her alma mater, Penn State, to help the university repair the damage from a child sex scandal. Two chief executives of New York banks — Robert Wilmers of Buffalo's M&T Bank and Deborah Wright of Carver Bancorp in New York City — were named in December to the New York State Tax Reform and Fairness Commission, which Governor Andrew Cuomo tasked with reviewing the state's tax code.

But Pierce's mission may be the most difficult — the city she grew up in is having trouble even finding the funds to repair streetlights — as well as the most scrutinized.

There was controversy over whether she was Detroit enough for the job before she even started.

After Detroit Mayor Dave Bing named five members to the financial advisory board this past April, several city council members raised an objection: None of the candidates lived within the city limits. A consent agreement with the state had given the advisory board power over the city's purse, and some council members felt they were being pushed aside in favor of unelected "non-Detroiters" — worse still, suburbanites. Pierce lives in the suburb of Northville.

But one councilwoman said the city couldn't be too picky. She had approached a few city residents about joining the board, and they turned her down.

"They didn't want to sit at a table and be called names," she said, according to a news report.

Still, the board is bitterly controversial. Many residents consider it as a tool for breaking the city's public unions, while others see it as a necessary rein on fiscal profligacy.

Pierce has a long history in Detroit. She attended Wayne State University and spent decades at the National Bank of Detroit and its successors.

The youngest of ten children, she was the first in her family to go to college.

"I was lucky in the birth order," Pierce said. "Being poor and having great grades allowed me to go to college."

She started working as a teller for the National Bank of Detroit while still in college and landed in the bank's marketing department upon graduation.

"At the time I entered, the banking industry was very male dominated and very credit oriented," Pierce said. "In order to rise in the ranks you needed a credit background."

So after a few years in the bank's marketing department, she went back to Wayne State for a finance M.A. She then returned to the National Bank of Detroit, sticking with it through 27 years and three changes of ownership, as it was successively bought by First Chicago NBD, Bank One and JPMorgan Chase (JPM).

"I was very lucky because I was able to run pretty much every line of business in a large geographic area," Pierce said.

She left JPMorgan in 2004 to become regional executive for RBS Citizens and president and chief executive of its subsidiary Charter One Michigan, overseeing RBS' activities in Ohio, Illinois and her home state.

When FirstMerit of Akron, Ohio, prepared to enter Michigan through its deal for Citizens Republic (CRBC), it tapped her to lead its efforts. Pierce started Friday as vice chairman of FirstMerit Corp. and chairman and chief executive of FirstMerit Michigan; she will oversee all of FirstMerit's operations in her home state and its retail, wealth management and corporate marketing efforts in four others.

"At FirstMerit, we view the opportunity in Michigan to be very robust. Take a look at just about any statistic and it will show you that the state has absolutely turned the corner and is in economic rebound. A lot of eyes nationally are on Michigan, asking, 'How did you do it?'" says Pierce.

Pierce is trying to help Detroit make a similar turnaround against tough odds. In December the financial advisory board unanimously approved a review of the city's finances that could lead to the appointment of an emergency manager. On Friday, Mayor Bing said budget cuts will force the city to close fifty city parks and all its pools this spring. Meanwhile, the board's opponents have challenged its authority in court.

Pierce remains hopeful about her hometown's prospects.

"The educational corridor and the business corridor of the city have been totally transformed for the better in the past three years. It's exciting," says Pierce, "but there are serious problems still."

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