Sheila A. Penrose doesn't fit the standard profile of a top executive at an elite Chicago banking company.
A native of Ashridge, England, she got a master's degree from the London School of Economics and worked as an adviser to the United Kingdom Treasury before joining Chicago-based Northern Trust Corp. in 1977.
Since then, the lean and articulate executive has moved up Northern's management ranks like a North Shore native, with stints in commercial banking, strategic planning, and management of personal wealth.
Her most recent promotion, at the beginning of this year, was the most important. It moved her to executive vice president of a new unit that generates half of Northern's revenues.
Furthermore, the unit, which is called corporate and institutional services, is being charged with a bold effort to boost cross-selling by getting officials in previously separate commercial banking and institutional trust businesses to work more closely together.
The promotion made Ms. Penrose the highest-ranking woman executive at Northern, with an office two doors down from the chairman's. And it put her squarely in the running to get an even more senior job soon, colleagues say.
"If she does as well as she's capable, the opportunities are endless," said Northern senior vice president Constance F. Magnuson.
"It's a very exciting and unique opportunity," acknowledged Ms. Penrose.
The key to such a rise would be successful stewardship of the new unit, which is the result of a reorganization that Northern veterans rank among the most difficult at the company in recent history.
As part of the change, management responsibilities are being shaken up. For example, executive vice president Gregg D. Behrens has been moved from head of commercial lending to head of a new unit overseeing all banking, trust, and investment services that Northern sells to large companies.
A similar change was made by senior vice president Lee S. Selander, who is now head of a unit that sells banking, trust, and money management services to midsize companies.
Furthermore, sales professionals are being asked to refer leads to colleagues in other lines of business. Compensation systems are being devised to reward such references.
"In all areas, we're expecting banking and trust professionals to identify opportunities," she said.
As a part of the change, a small number of jobs are being eliminated to cut costs.
While the changes are much less dramatic than those at some other institutions, which have opted for massive job cuts to save money, they are proving unnerving to some Northern employees. Many of these workers have gotten used to secure jobs at one of the country's most stable banking companies.
But the changes are also important. Northern's stock has dipped slightly below its high of $27.25 for the past year. Analysts attribute the drop to investor concerns that growing price competition in Northern's core custody businesses will cut into margins.
Northern is distinctly different from most banking companies. It gets about two-thirds of its revenues from fees, principally fees for trust and custody services for institutional investors and wealthy individuals.
Growth in cross-sale ratios would go a long way towards alleviating investor concerns about the health of these businesses.
"We will be better informed about (customer) needs, and way above competition in meeting them," said Mr. Behrens.
Colleagues say Ms. Penrose is a good choice for leading the change - a clear strategic thinker with superb communication skills.
They also say she has brought a new spirit of openness to Northern's institutional businesses through regular staff meetings designed to solicit input from the rank and file.
But as for her own career prospects, Ms. Penrose is keeping relatively mum.
"This organization has offered me a lot of opportunities and challenges," she said. "I really don't like to go beyond that."
Indeed, Ms. Penrose's ability to advance at Northern may be limited somewhat by the relative youth of its top executives. David W. Fox, chairman and chief executive, plans to retire in October. He is to be replaced by president William A. Osborn, 47.
Mr. Osborn's position will be assumed by vice chairman Barry G. Hastings, 47.
Company insiders said Ms. Penrose, 49, is a top candidate to get Mr. Hastings vice chairmanship after he moves up. But she is unlikely to win a higher position in the near future, since Mr. Osborn and Mr. Hasting are unlikely to retire anytime soon.
So if Ms. Penrose is aiming for a chairmanship - which colleagues say would be a reasonable ambition for her - she may have to look for it at another institution.