Sandy Pierce
Vice Chairman, FirstMerit Corp.; Chairman and CEO, FirstMerit Michigan

When Sandy Pierce broke into banking as a commercial lender in the early 1980s, she had a huge advantage over the other young loan officers — only she didn't know it.

Pierce grew up poor in Detroit's Poletown neighborhood. Her parents, Nick and Helen Tokarczyk, ran the Chene-Adele tavern on Chene Street, and the family — Pierce was the youngest of 10 children — lived in an apartment above. Pierce was the only child to go to college, graduating from Wayne State University with a degree in marketing in 1980.

During college, Pierce worked as a part-time teller at the old National Bank of Detroit, which offered her a marketing job after graduation. She asked to go into commercial lending instead because it seemed more lucrative.

Pierce says she was a good loan officer, but sensitive about her background. In those days, she would still help when the Chene-Adele got busy. When she looked around at her banking colleagues, she saw few women, and she didn't see anyone at all who had grown up over a bar.

"As I progressed through the lending ranks, I was confident on the exterior, but on the inside I was terrified," Pierce says. "I was scared that if given the choice between me and someone with a more privileged upbringing I wouldn't advance."

It wasn't until years later Pierce realized that rather than holding her back, her background had made her who she was. "Growing up poor in Detroit, being street smart, and really knowing the region made me different from most of my peers and that was an advantage," she says.

Pierce has worked her entire career in Michigan, first for NBD and its successors and then Charter One. Her most meaningful work has come in the past three years. She served as chairman of the Financial Advisory Board that guided Detroit through its historic bankruptcy. And at FirstMerit, which she joined in February 2013, she was deeply involved in the integration of the $9.6 billion-asset Citizens Republic Bancorp. Not bad for a kid from Poletown.

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