When Ellen Alemany looks back on her 36-year career in banking, she sees an industry transformed — for better and for worse.

"I think back to what it was like when I started. It was much simpler then than it is now to say the least," the recently retired chairman and CEO of RBS Citizens Financial Group said Thursday as she accepted a lifetime achievement award, presented at American Banker's gala celebrating the most powerful women in banking and finance.

"Our touch points were limited. You went to a branch where you met a commercial banker. The credit offerings were limited. You could pretty much boil it down to loans and deposits for the most part. The ability to expand was limited … yet consumer confidence in banking was high … and I think that's because customers had face-to-face relationships with their bankers and rated us primarily on service and trust."

Too many banks now misinterpret expanded service offerings as a substitute for customer engagement, Alemany said. "When we don't keep our customers at the heart of every decision, customers perceive we are self-serving and we risk losing their trust," she said.

The solution, Alemany said, is for banks to focus on creating personal relationships with their customers. "Only people can produce higher levels of customer engagement," she said.

Alemany also spoke about the technological changes that are creating new challenges for an industry that must be prepared to combat cyber-attacks, espionage and state-sponsored terrorism. And she urged bankers to forge stronger relationships with regulators as the country continues rebuilding from the rubble of the financial crisis.

"We must continue to engage with our regulators" on how the new Dodd-Frank rules are applied, Alemany said.  "With the new rules for guidance, we can create an environment in which strong banks spur robust economic growth and are safe enough to do so without causing disruption."

Alemany retired from RBS in October after a long, lucrative career in banking that saw her featured in American Banker's Most Powerful Women in Banking rankings several times. On Thursday night, she intimated that she may not be done with the industry.

"I still have some lifetime yet," she said.


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