Lifetime achievement: Barbara Desoer's unconventional path to big-bank CEO

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When she retired from banking the first time, Barbara Desoer left one of her longtime goals unfulfilled: to ascend to the chief executive’s office.

She was headed there during her 35 years at Bank of America. But she fell short in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, during which she led the troubled mortgage lender Countrywide after it was purchased by BofA. Desoer retired in 2012 and said she fully intended to stick with her decision.

She helped send her daughter off to college at the University of Chicago. She looked for a corporate board to join. But her husband, Marc, noticed she was struggling to find a satisfying routine, Desoer said.

Then she got a call from a recruiter for Citigroup, which was looking for a chief operating officer for its Citibank retail subsidiary. She took the job in 2013 and went on to fulfill her goal, becoming Citibank’s CEO in 2014.

Returning to the industry allowed her to tap into a deep well of banking experience, much of it accumulated in times of crisis stretching from the 1980s to the 2000s.

“The ultimate dream came around, just later than I thought,” said Desoer, 66, who will be honored with a Lifetime Achievement award Thursday in New York City. She will accept the award at American Banker’s gala celebration for the Most Powerful Women in Banking and Finance.

One of the defining moments in the last decade of Desoer’s career is her decision to retire from BofA. It followed a tumultuous period for the Charlotte, N.C., banking giant, in which Desoer had been one of the top internal candidates to replace retiring CEO Ken Lewis before the job went to Brian Moynihan in 2010.

“BofA gave me so many opportunities. I’m honored to have been considered and to have been in the running,” she said of the CEO role.

Desoer led the integration of at least four major BofA acquisitions — Fleet Financial, MBNA, U.S. Trust and LaSalle Bank — before getting tasked with doing the same for Countrywide.

BofA acquired the California-based company in 2008 before the extent of its problems, and the extent of the brewing national financial crisis, became clear. But by the time Lewis left under pressure two years later, Countrywide had come to be viewed as a prime example of the excesses that led to the collapse of the housing market.

Desoer remained president of the rebranded Bank of America Home Loans under Moynihan, though lost some power in subsequent corporate reshufflings. After one of them, in the fall of 2011, she no longer reported directly to the CEO, and she announced her retirement several months later.

Desoer said that the corporate changes made sense for BofA and that she did not view them as career setbacks. She also said she has no regrets.

Though she acknowledged it was hard to leave BofA, she said, “The timing was right.”

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It was one of several unconventional twists throughout Desoer's career.

As she worked her way up, she sought out positions that let her explore all areas of banking, from commercial lending and retail banking, to marketing and combating money laundering. She was leading BofA’s operations and technology unit when the iPhone was first introduced, compelling banks to adapt.

Around 1990, she asked for a change to retail banking, the first time she had asked for something in her career, she said. Many of her commercial banking peers were scratching their heads. They questioned how anyone could consider retail banking enticing.

“They thought, ‘What happened? What did you do to deserve this?’ ” Desoer recounted.

Desoer said she looked at it not as a step backward but as a way to deepen her understanding of banking and lead a larger team. It also led her into the middle of a challenge, one of her first as a manager.

About 18 months after she took the role, BofA purchased Security Pacific Corp. Desoer, a district manager, was charged with overseeing branch integration in San Francisco. The two banks operated a total of 60 branches in the city, but the plan was to cut back to 30 over roughly 18 months.

“That was really the ultimate test, much earlier than I expected in going into a large-scale management role,” she said, adding that she had to earn the trust and commitment of branch managers even if they feared losing their jobs.

“It was the first time that I got my brand of leading large teams of people through transformation and change, and from there every other opportunity that I had at BofA had that as a theme,” Desoer said.

This time around, she said, she is retiring for good. She looks forward to traveling and hiking with her husband, as well as helping her daughter, Catherine, plan her wedding next year.

She also intends to continue to serve on the board of Citigroup and of the dialysis care provider Davita Inc., which she joined in 2015. And she is a member of the board of visitors for the University of California, Berkeley, which advises the chancellor and campus leadership.

Banking was not Desoer’s first choice after she graduated in 1974 with a degree in mathematics from Mount Holyoke College.

Her plan was to work as an actuary for a life insurance company. A self-described introvert, Desoer said she looked forward to working with mathematical models and keeping human interaction to a minimum.

But the country was in recession in the early 1970s and life insurers were not hiring actuaries. She moved to San Francisco with a college roommate and found a job as an underwriter with a commercial casualty insurer. She enjoyed the work, which included cultivating relationships with brokers, but did not see a career path.

So she enrolled in the MBA program at the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley. A colleague mentioned she should look at financial services, as it involved assessing risk, but it would also allow her to work directly with company leaders rather than through intermediaries like brokers.

“That had a tremendous appeal to me,” Desoer said.

In 1977, she joined the management training program at Bank of America, then a San Francisco-based institution operated by the holding company BankAmerica Corp. Her first posting was in commercial banking for middle-market companies in San Francisco.

But her sights were on the C-suite. “The day I joined BofA, I aspired to be CEO. I thought, ‘Go for it,’ ” said Desoer, who traced her ambition to the example of her late father, Harold Dombkowski.

After serving in the Navy during World War II, he took a job on a General Motors assembly line in Detroit, the city where Desoer was born. He aspired for more, however, and over time, he worked his way up to management roles not just in the United States but at GM factories in Mexico and France, Desoer said.

She was not worried about making her way in the male-dominated world of banking. She said she gained confidence at Mount Holyoke, a women’s college.

She never felt she was denied career opportunities because of her gender. Instead, she felt supported from the beginning, recalling a time at BofA when a commercial banking client was being transferred to her but who balked at working with a woman.

“My boss said, ‘Just give her a chance and if you don’t think she can hold up, that’s a different conversation. If you are saying you won’t accept her as a woman, I will have to ask you to look for another bank,’ ” Desoer said. “To this day I get goosebumps when I think about it. It was the obvious thing to do in hindsight, but it had such an impact on me and the entire team.”

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Her first career turning point came in the mid-1980s when she worked as an executive assistant to BofA’s then-CEO, Samuel Armacost, a job given on a rotating basis to up-and-coming leaders in the company. Armacost was ousted by the board in 1986 during another turbulent time for the company.

“It was sort of accelerated learning about people, about board interaction, about how to manage risk in a crisis,” Desoer said.

Armacost was succeeded by Alden Winship “Tom” Clausen, a former BofA chief executive who rejoined the company in 1986 and who became a mentor to Desoer. Clausen, who also led the World Bank at one time, died in 2013.

Desoer returned to commercial banking but was itching for a new challenge. While she enjoyed interacting with clients, she was developing a stronger passion for managing people internally. It was then that she requested the change to retail banking that put her in the middle of the BofA-Security Pacific merger.

That was followed later in the 1990s by her role assuaging the fears of San Francisco leaders after BofA was purchased in 1998 by NationsBank, which eventually adopted the BofA moniker. She moved to NationsBank’s hometown of Charlotte, and held a series of roles before taking the one that culminated in her retirement in 2012. As president of home lending, she oversaw a business that accounted for 20% of U.S. mortgage originations and served 14 million customers.

She was lured to Citigroup by the opportunity to move up to the role of Citibank’s CEO and to work alongside Michael Corbat, who was named the CEO of its parent company, Citigroup, in 2012. In addition to her role with the retail bank, Desoer helped sharpen Citi’s anti-money-laundering efforts and stress-testing operations.

Corbat also asked Desoer to co-lead an internal group called Citi Women, where she worked on efforts to improve gender equity and increase women’s representation in leadership. They included ensuring a diverse list of candidates are considered and interviewed for open positions. A gratifying part of her legacy, she said, is that her successor as CEO is another woman, Mary McNiff.

“I think the world of the team there and all that’s been accomplished — and there’s more to do,” Desoer said.

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