The setting was festive and the fashions elegant, but when Heidi Miller took the stage Tuesday night to accept her award as U.S. Banker's Most Powerful Woman in Banking, pride turned to near defiance with Miller's delivery of as strong a public defense of the industry as any executive has dared voice in recent memory.
"I'm very proud of what I do, where I do it. I'm very proud of the industry I belong to," said Miller, the chief executive of JPMorgan Chase & Co.'s treasury and securities services unit. "By separating the headlines and the press reports of a parallel universe from the reality that I know about what most of us do — and yes, that includes derivatives traders and securitizers — I believe that most of us have done our jobs admirably, even in a tough environment."
Over 500 guests gathered at New York's glittering Plaza Hotel on Tuesday night to honor Miller and the others on the 7th annual list of The 25 Most Powerful Women in Banking, compiled by the editors of U.S. Banker and American Banker.
It was evident from the outset of the event that men would play a secondary — and supportive — role. Chief executives such as U.S. Bancorp's Richard Davis and Bank of New York Mellon Corp.'s Bob Kelly applauded, beamed and cheered as their employees were called to the stage.
But the sex of the honorees became secondary as the evening progressed, and the celebration of individual achievements transformed into a celebration of the banking industry overall. Indeed, the gala had the air of a pep rally, with applause interrupting introductions almost every time a winner or her institution was named.
"Businesses can have a transformative and positive impact," said Pam Flaherty, Citigroup Inc.'s director of corporate citizenship and the CEO of Citi Foundation, as she accepted the Marjorie Magner Lifetime Achievement Award. She concluded her speech with a quote from Margaret Mead: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."
In her speech, Miller enumerated the contributions her own division has made, before pressing her case on behalf of her entire industry. At her unit, "we play an invaluable role in the economy for our own country and for the global financial system. It's not sexy, but it's vital," she said. "I felt lucky to have joined an industry that helped support companies big and small, governments, other banks, individuals. It's an industry that supports people directly and indirectly through that support. It's an industry that does good works in communities."
Miller took special aim at politicians who supported a massive tax on bankers' compensation and "the headline that demonized bankers as evildoers, architects of the downfall of Western civilization," which she quipped had caused her to "fall into existential despair" this winter. "I was taken by surprise that the world viewed me as evil," she said.
But now, "I'm glad to say that the depression of winter has worn off and I remain as proud as ever of being a banker," Miller said. "I think we should all stand tall and be proud. … Tell yourselves you're the survivors in 2009."
That sentiment met thunderous applause — and gratitude from the audience. "It's really nice to hear," said Pamela Joseph, U.S. Bancorp's vice chairman of payment services and U.S. Banker's third-most powerful woman in banking. "I think a lot of us feel that way this year."
Karen Peetz, Bank of New York Mellon's CEO for financial markets and treasury services, and U.S. Banker's second-most powerful woman in banking, agreed that Miller "touched on the important issues."
In an interview after her speech, Miller acknowledged that the time had to be right in order to launch such a passionate defense of her industry. "In the onslaught of bad publicity and popular sentiment, it's very hard to do anything but just wait for it to roll past," she said. Over the past year, "trying to get facts and real discussion there was not very well received. … You just have to get through it with minimum pain and then hope that calmer voices ultimately prevail."