Two years ago, Sandy Pierce was offered a chance to leave a mark on her hometown that few bankers few people of any profession ever get. Pierce was asked to chair Detroit's Financial Advisory Board, which was being created to deal with the city's deepening fiscal crisis.
For Pierce, the decision was clear. She'd grown up in Detroit, in an apartment above her parents' tavern on Chene Street in the Poletown neighborhood, once a busy commercial center and now a vivid illustration of the city's depopulation and blight. The youngest of 10 children, Pierce was the first in her family to go to college, attending Wayne State University, in the city center. She got her start in banking at National Bank of Detroit, which hired her as a teller while she was still in school. She stuck with the bank through 27 years and three changes of ownership, as it merged with First National Bank of Chicago, then Bank One, and finally JPMorgan Chase, in 2004.
Pierce, FirstMerit's vice chairman and the CEO of its Michigan operations, has never lived outside the Detroit area. She lives with Tom, her husband of 35 years, and their teenage son, Tommy, in the suburb of Northville; her two daughters and three grandchildren live just a few miles away.
Pierce says she had an obligation to use her abilities as a businessperson to do what she could to help solve the city's problems. "I feel that it is our responsibility in corporate America to assist those in need where we live and work. You cannot have a healthy business without having a healthy community," she says.
The nine-member Financial Advisory Board was required by the state to monitor Detroit's budget, oversee the emergency manager and serve as referee of the bitterly controversial fiscal reforms being implemented.
Pierce sees her goal as fixing the budget to where the city's general fund can handle the basic services it's supposed to provide keeping the streetlights on and cops and firefighters on the streets.
"Our oversight role is time-consuming, it is serious, it is taking care of an $18 billion debt problem and city services that have not really been provided for a number of years," she says.
Former Detroit mayor Dave Bing asked Pierce to join the board in April 2012, when she was leading RBS Citizens' Charter One subsidiary in the Midwest. She was planning to step down from the bank, and didn't know what her next move would be. She didn't hesitate when Bing and Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder picked her to serve as the board's chairman.
Detroit's financial reforms have been harshly criticized by many advocates for city workers and retirees. Some see the Financial Advisory Board as a tool to push through unpopular benefit cuts and layoffs without democratic oversight. Pierce, however, takes pride in the board's role in preserving benefits for the city's workers. Early plans for the city's financial restructuring in bankruptcy included deep cuts to retirees' pensions. They also involved selling city-owned artworks on display at the Detroit Institute of Arts to help pay bondholders.
In April, the city and pensioners arrived at a so-called grand bargain to avoid massive benefit cuts and the prospect of having to sell Detroit's art. As part of the compromise, local businesses and nonprofits agreed to contribute $815 million to help the city's finances. The deal was overwhelmingly approved by pensioners.
Though the Financial Advisory Board didn't propose the plan, it was a strong proponent, and Pierce personally advocated it. She called business leaders and local executives she knows to encourage them to contribute to the rescue fund. She also helped secure a contribution from FirstMerit.
Of course, helping guide Detroit through bankruptcy was only Pierce's night job. At FirstMerit last year, Pierce oversaw its massive integration of Citizens Republic Bancorp of Flint, Mich.
"A lot of people ask me how I balance it. And what I say is, 'balance' is not a word that I use," she says.
Instead, she works toward "integrating my career and my personal life and my commitments to my community and my friends. Integrating it, and understanding that you cannot give equally to all those parts and all those constituencies every day."