Lifetime achievement: Huntington's Mary Navarro

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Mary Navarro has long believed that banks need to advocate for their customers, but it took a financial crisis to persuade Huntington Bank's retail banking chief to try building a business plan around that philosophy.

Navarro joined the Columbus, Ohio, bank in 2001 and over the next nine years Huntington often won accolades for its service but fared little better than its competitors when it came to attracting new customers. The problem, Navarro said, was that standard industry policies, from hold times on deposits to the fees charged on checking accounts, were not all that consumer-friendly.

“Individual employees were always advocates for their customers, but actual bank practices and policies made it difficult for them to always do the right thing for those customers,” Navarro said.

The crisis gave Huntington an unprecedented opportunity to change the bank’s approach to retail banking. With the industry’s reputation in tatters, Chief Executive Stephen Steinour challenged Navarro to differentiate Huntington by developing products and services that put customers’ needs above all else, and she and her team delivered.

In mid-2010 — as the rest of the industry was fighting policymakers’ efforts to require banks to be more transparent about their overdraft policies — Huntington stopped charging overdraft fees on transactions of less than $5 and set limits on the number of times customers could overdraw their accounts in a day. Later that year it rolled out “24-hour grace,” a groundbreaking feature in which the bank gave customers who had overdrawn their accounts a full business day to replenish the funds before being charged an overdraft fee.

Over the next several quarters, the bank also introduced a free checking account with no strings attached; largely eliminated wait times on deposits so that customers would not have to wait until the next business day to have access to their funds; and bucked conventional wisdom by opening dozens of branches inside grocery stores in Ohio and Michigan.

The results of Huntington’s efforts have been impressive. Pre-crisis, Huntington considered it to be a good year if new household account openings increased by 2% from the prior year. Since 2011, household growth has been two or three times that, and in some years it has been as high as 10% or 12%, Navarro said.

Meanwhile, Huntington has gained significant deposit share in Ohio and Michigan, and its reputation with customers has never been stronger. It has topped J.D. Power’s customer satisfaction rankings for its region of the country for five years running, and last year the consulting firm Bain & Co. ranked it No. 1 nationally in several categories, including branch satisfaction, online and mobile satisfaction, and satisfaction with account opening and bill pay.

For the significant role she played in transforming Huntington into a retail banking powerhouse, Navarro will be honored with a Lifetime Achievement award at American Banker’s annual Most Powerful Women in Banking gala in New York on Thursday.

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Navarro, 61, retired from Huntington in July after a 42-year career in banking. Steinour, who is also the chairman at the $101 billion-asset company, said that while she was a driving force behind Huntington’s “fair-play” banking philosophy, she will be remembered most for her warm heart.

“Mary ran a very big rig for us, but she did it with a tremendous amount of caring for colleagues,” said Steinour, who will present the award to Navarro at Thursday’s event. “She could make tough decisions when she had to, but she had a big heart and constantly went out of her way to help people.”

Navarro began her banking career in the early 1970s as a teller at a branch of East Lansing State Bank in Michigan, where she worked through high school and when she was home on college break. (Coincidentally, that same branch in Okemos, Mich., became part of Huntington last year when Huntington acquired FirstMerit Bank.)

Navarro went into banking straight after college, and by 22 she was a branch manager. Her degree, though, was in international business with a minor in Spanish, so for a few years during her mid-20s she left banking for careers in which she could better put her Spanish to use.

She returned to the industry as a credit trainee for Valley National Bank in Phoenix because, she said, she missed working with customers and the team environment of a bank. Valley National was later absorbed by Bank One and over the next two decades Navarro rose steadily through Bank One’s ranks, eventually ending up in Columbus, Bank One’s onetime headquarters city.

Navarro moved over to Huntington as head of retail and business banking and stayed in that role for her entire career at the bank. It was at Huntington where she also became involved with the Consumer Bankers Association, serving on its board for 13 years and chairing it in 2011.

For all she accomplished over four-plus decades in banking, Navarro said that her last eight years at Huntington were the most satisfying of her career.

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She appreciated having a CEO who shared her vision of what a retail bank could be and working for a company that was willing to forgo tens of millions of dollars in overdraft income as it rolled out “24-hour grace,” and invest heavily in marketing even as it was still recovering from the real estate bust.

“We spent $75 million rebranding every branch — that was approved by the board in 2010 — and we upped our marketing budget from $20 million to $40 million,” she said. “We made these big investments because we knew we had a winning strategy. It technically cost the bank a lot of money, but we were rewarded many times over with many more customers.”

Steinour, for his part, said he was glad to hear that Navarro viewed her last years with Huntington as the most rewarding of her career, especially given the workload.

"It was an exciting time, but it was also a challenging time. In terms of hours worked, these last eight years were more like 15," he joked.

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Consumer banking Commercial banking Overdrafts Mary Navarro Huntington Bancshares Huntington National Bank Women in Banking