It was a night of restrained optimism, understated New York glitz, and a smattering of angst, but camaraderie trumped competition Monday night at U.S. Banker's 6th annual gala toasting The 25 Most Powerful Women in Banking, which drew 500 guests to The Plaza. Some of the industry's heaviest hitters came out to see, be seen, and compare notes from the field at a time when capitalism itself seems to ride on shifting shoals.
JPMorgan Chase's Heidi Miller, CEO of Treasury and Securities Services, took advantage of a full house to underscore how important it is for women in the industry to create a unified front. "These are difficult times, and we face extraordinary circumstances in our industry and in our nation," said Ms. Miller, who was ranked number one by U.S. Banker for the second year in a row.
"No matter what the financial crisis, men — excuse me for those few of you brave enough to be here tonight — have historically landed on their feet. But given what we're up against today as women, we'd be foolhardy if we didn't think about how we should land on our feet. Now, more than ever, we have to help each other. We can't go it alone; we need to network...No matter where we land, in order to land on our feet, we have to do it together," she said.
The Plaza gala was not about glitter and steak as the industry burns. Rather, the most influential women in the industry — from Credit Suisse's Nicole Arnaboldi to Goldman Sachs' Stacy Bash-Polley — came out to speak with their peers about taking a long-term approach in responding to daily events. The event offered many reminders that, even among huge corporate losses, there are strong performers like Sunflower Bank's Mollie Hale Carter, whose Salina, KS-based community bank posted one of the largest return on equity numbers in the industry.
Bank of America's Barbara Desoer, president of mortgage, home equity and insurance services, made light of her recent ascension to one of the toughest jobs in the industry: assimilating Countrywide home lending. She said that the three most important lessons that she's learned during her 31 years in banking are, first, to lead from the front and always convey confidence, passion, and keep people focused; second, control what you can control; and finally, accept a challenge, because the biggest opportunities arise when times are the toughest.
"That's why when I was offered the opportunity to take over the Bank of America and Countrywide mortgage, home equity and insurance service businesses; I accepted on the spot — I really, really did," Ms. Desoer said with a grin. The line drew the most laughs and the largest applause of the evening.
Ms. Desoer, who is viewed by many as on the short list of potential heirs to Bank of America chief executive Ken Lewis, closed by saying: "We can either let this cycle define us or we can define the future that's on the other end of this cycle. We have a choice and how we act will determine our ultimate level of success as leaders and I couldn't think of a better group of leaders to be here with to celebrate that with."
That nagging desire to be "on" all the time prompted a wry observation from U.S. Banker editorial director Holly Sraeel, host of the evening. "Listen, you haven't been able to solve the crisis during the past 10 months, so you're not going to do it during the next few hours. So turn off your BlackBerrys and cell phones and enjoy the evening," she said.
The morning after the big night, it was business as usual. The Fed again opened its purse in an attempt to shore up money market mutual funds, and several regional banks reported third-quarter losses.