Chief Risk Officer, Huntington Bancshares

After a 22-year career at Bank of America, Helga Houston was let go on Dec. 10, 2008. The credit crisis was threatening the Charlotte-based company’s financial viability, and Houston was one of numerous executives who were cut.

“I was devastated, and there was nothing in my career experience up to that point that prepared me for that moment,” recalled Houston, who had been serving as the risk executive for global consumer and small business at B of A.

Over time, Houston said that she learned to separate what was in her control from what was not. She also took comfort from the challenges that other leaders in the banking industry have overcome. “It’s more about how one responds to personal crisis and uses the opportunity to reassess,” she said.

In January 2012, Houston became chief risk officer at Huntington Bancshares, where she has become a trusted adviser to CEO Stephen Steinour. Last year, one of Houston’s major tasks was to integrate employees of the recently acquired FirstMerit into Huntington’s corporate culture. It was the company’s largest-ever acquisition.

“Cultural assimilation was a top priority,” Steinour said, “and Helga’s team was at the forefront of orienting our new colleagues in our risk culture, which emphasizes accountability and prompt escalation of issues.”

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Houston leads a team of 480 risk employees whose responsibilities include producing the annual capital plan as part of the Federal Reserve’s stress-testing process. She is also Huntington’s chief regulatory liaison, and has gotten substantial credit for the fact that the Fed approved the FirstMerit deal in just 185 days.

“I have one of the most fulfilling roles I could have imagined,” Houston said. “I am certain that I would not be in my Huntington leadership role had I not been asked to leave Bank of America.”

Kevin Wack

Kevin Wack

Kevin Wack is a California-based reporter for American Banker who covers the U.S. consumer finance industry.