No other bank leader has fostered more change—nor weathered more controversy—during the past year than Peyton Patterson. The 21-year industry veteran engineered a simultaneous double-merger/conversion that gave birth to NewAlliance Bancshares, a $6 billion New Haven, CT, bank. The transaction’s complexity was hailed as an industry model. Patterson, NewAlliance’s chairman, CEO and president, had bigger issues to contend with: New Haven’s liberal establishment, led by its mayor, attacked her as an outsider intent on looting the city’s sole remaining large independent institution. The protests and public forums became so hostile, Patterson felt compelled to hire private security for her team. But she didn’t blink. Instead, she negotiated a compromise to fend off a threatened legal challenge from the city, and seemed to win over most critics. Indeed, the $1 billion April IPO to depositors was oversubscribed.

“She brought energy and vision—a desire to make the bank a meaningful player in the marketplace,” says NewAlliance CFO Merrill Blanksteen. And when the controversy exploded, “she kept employee morale up by explaining that not everyone likes change.” Says Patterson: “When things got stressful, what got me through it was a conviction that I was doing the right thing, and that my team believed in it.”

Doing the right thing may be an understatement. Under her tutelage, NewAlliance more than doubled its assets to $6 billion, from $2.4 billion, and increased its per-share price by 40 percent.

To say that Patterson, 48, asked to be put on this hot seat might be an overstatement, but just barely. Perpetually ambitious, the Washington, D.C., native admits to being “tenacious” in planning her own career. After earning an MBA from The George Washington University in 1983, she got two job offers: one from Hewlett Packard, the other from CoreStates Financial. She opted for banking because her financial and analytical skills were stronger than her technology acumen. Her first stints were in product management, followed by branch-management positions in Philadelphia. In 1989, she was recruited to Chemical Bank by then-vice chairman Tom Jacobs, who gave her P&L responsibilities and career guidance, before eventually putting her in charge of national consumer lending. “He always had a watchful eye for giving me the right exposure to help my career,” she says.

Beginning at Dime Bancorp in 1996, Patterson blossomed as an evp and confidante to CEO Lawrence Toal. She considered herself CEO material, and told Toal as much. “I wanted to run Dime” if he stepped down, she recalls. Patterson also let executive search firms know she wanted to run her own bank. “Most of the positions I’ve gotten were because I asked for them,” she explains. While such forwardness is rare, “I concluded a long time ago that I wanted to control my own destiny. …You need to have a plan, and you can’t be shy about pursuing it.”

In 2001, on the same day that Dime’s acquisition by Washington Mutual was announced, she got a call about running NewAlliance predecessor New Haven Savings Bank, a sleepy mutual whose board was agitating for change.

She has delivered in spades, striking an impressive life balance in the process. Patterson serves on boards of a hospital and an arts council, as well as the Greater New York March of Dimes. She plays tennis and power-walks six miles daily to clear her head. And she has made it known to colleagues that time with her six-year-old daughter is a top priority. “When she says she’s leaving at a certain time to pick up her daughter, there’s never any doubt that’s what will happen,” says friend John “Bud” Johnson Jr., managing director of Johnson & Norinsky Associates, a New York search firm.

Patterson says the CEO job is more about being a visionary than a manager. Her role models include HP’s Carly Fiorina and JPMorgan Chase’s Jamie Dimon, because they’re “transformational agents who understand how to foster change.” At NewAlliance, “I need to be two years ahead of everyone else, so there’s a plan and priorities are set,” she says.

But as a boss, the former Kenyon College basketball forward considers herself a “player’s coach” who favors a “collaborative” decision-making style over dictates. That, along with her personality, has allowed her to attract good people. “She’s fundamentally a very bright consumer-finance marketer, and a superb problem-solver,” Johnson says. “And she’s a helluva lot of fun to be around, someone who doesn’t take herself too seriously.”

Not a bad combination.

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