In equestrian dressage competition, the rider and the horse are one. The animal gallops and canters about in sync with the wishes of its rider, who in tail coat and top hat closely minds the horse’s limitations. Any sign that the horse is tight or insufficiently “supple,” and there’s hell to pay with the judges.

This is Cece Sutton’s idea of a pleasant, getaway hobby. “I wish I could say I rode for pleasure,” says the Wachovia chief retail banking exec and competitive equestrian. “Rather than a casual trail-riding kind of horseback riding, I picked one of the toughest disciplines.”

Sutton’s inclination toward dressage, instead of horseplay, in some ways parallels her passion for banking. Sutton, an evp, travels to branches weekly to visit with managers and customers across Wachovia’s ever-expanding footprint. When at Charlotte headquarters, she directs teams studying the minutia of costs and customer segmentation. Even judging plays a role, as Sutton regularly submits herself to press and analyst grilling as the face of Wachovia’s retail and small business division.

Since being appointed to her current post in 1999 (then at First Union), Sutton’s profile has risen as Wachovia has grown through an acquisition feast of more than 20 banks, brokerages and investment firms, including the First Union/Wachovia marriage and most recently SouthTrust Corp. Sutton helps to refine sales strategies for new business lines and customer sectors Wachovia adds with each acquisition, while also supporting the buildout of branch-level expertise. “There was a day we were right there with the other banks thinking the financial center wasn’t going to be as viable, and customers were going to move to alternative channels,” says Sutton, 46. “All the evidence now really supports that, at least for the foreseeable future, the branch really is king.”

Sutton’s division—the largest segment of Wachovia’s general bank operations—has provided such support. Overall bank earnings jumped 16 percent to $751 million in the second quarter compared to a year earlier, on total quarterly revenue of $2.54 billion. The retail bank section also increased net new retail checking accounts 148,000 over last year, 56 percent faster growth than the year before.

Meanwhile, customer attrition at the bank in 2003 fell to 12 percent from 20 percent in 1999, as Sutton and her team mined consumer data to identify the “sweet spot” customer: those who maintain twice the average portfolio balance and are 75 percent more profitable than other patrons. It’s a critical endeavor. Besides tough competition from other players offering full-service investment/wealth-management vehicles, acquiring and servicing mass affluent customers is pricey; Sutton estimates it costs 50 cents per $1 earned in deposit or investments. “We’ve done a lot of work trying to understand the cost of delivery by channel and the cost of delivery by segment,” says Sutton.

Sutton has been instrumental in locating high-net-worth clients and planning the services through Wachovia’s burgeoning private advisory group, says Ben Jenkins III, senior evp and president of the General Bank division. “She’s been a leader in helping ensure we hand off and support wealth management…to make sure we have the right wealth banker in front of the right wealth client,” says Jenkins. Wachovia has planted more than 80 private bankers in branches to step in for retail bank officers to service the $250,000 to $2.5 million asset customer, according to Jenkins. “Bankers like to serve customers,” Jenkins says. “Handing customers off isn’t always a natural act.”

Sutton feels she can explain this type of tag-team strategy well to her branch managers because she understands their job. Sutton launched her career with First Union in 1978 as a file clerk, but quickly rose in the consumer division to branch manager in both Raleigh and Cary, NC. She earned her mid-career MBA at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, SC.
Sutton is now one of three female executive directors at Wachovia, and was recently named to the operating committee. She also serves as a board member of the Consumer Bankers Association, where she leads efforts to advise top 100 banks on practice and integration of investment services, says CBA president Joe Belew.

Despite these accomplishments, Sutton is loath to consider herself a trailblazer, believing the woman bankers of the 1960s-70s were the true pioneers. She said she’s never felt the sting of discrimination within her firm, and laughs over anecdotes such as being repeatedly mistaken for the wife of a First Union executive at a regional bankers meeting a decade ago. “I’ve never not had the ability to do what I’ve wanted to do with my career,” she says. “I’ve always worked with folks who’ve been very supportive. Have there been times there’s been a job out there that I didn’t get? Yes. Would I have gotten it as a man? I don’t know. That’s honestly a tough one to answer.”

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