Donna Alexander often says that her first months on the job as chief executive of the Bankers Association for Finance and Trade were "like drinking water from a fire hose that was turned on full power."
Brought on in the summer of 2008 to make the trade group more relevant to banks outside of the United States, Alexander was still learning the complexities of trade finance when the financial crisis struck in full force and upended global commerce. The trade group's leadership quickly offered suggestions for unfreezing the credit markets-including higher government guarantees on trade deals-and, for Alexander, the next few months were a whirlwind of policy meetings, strategy sessions and late nights drafting position papers, all leading up to a global summit on trade finance in early 2009.
Yet challenging as it was pulling together the trade group's first summit on relatively short notice, Alexander says the one-day event in London turned out to be a "watershed moment" for what is now known as BAFT-IFSA (following its merger this year with the International Financial Services Association).
Until then, this affiliate of the American Bankers Association had a reputation for being too "U.S.-centric;" hosting the summit sent a strong signal that it was serious about representing the interests of banks globally, Alexander says.
Since then, Alexander has logged countless frequent flyer miles advancing that global initiative and, in the process, has significantly raised BAFT-IFSA's profile, says Diane Casey-Landry, the ABA's president and chief operating officer.
On matters of policy, BAFT-IFSA has emerged as a leading voice in the Basel Committee's negotiations over proposed new capital rules, and it has been instrumental in preserving the relationships of financial services companies worldwide with the Kazakhstan government in the wake of that country's banking crisis.
Under Alexander, the trade group has also established advisory councils in Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America and created a panel made up of leaders at the world's top transaction banks who meet several times a year for high-level discussions on the most pressing trade-finance issues.
And in between all these initiatives, Alexander still found the time and energy to oversee the merger with IFSA.
Casey-Landry says that if anyone could handle juggling so much at once, it's Alexander. "Donna is one of the most high-energy, committed people I've ever met," says Casey-Landry. "Getting these councils up and running, pulling off a merger, these are very significant accomplishments in two years."
In many respects, Alexander has spent much of her career preparing for this job. The daughter of missionaries, she spent the bulk of her childhood in Thailand before moving to the states to attend college and, later, law school. She landed in Washington in her early 20s and worked on Capitol Hill for several years, including a stint as general counsel for a member of the House Banking Committee. She moved on to a large international law firm and later to a top staff position at the Bond Market Association (now known as the Securities Industry Financial Markets Association).
Howard Bascom, BAFT-IFSA's chairman and the head of global trade finance at BNY Mellon, says Alexander's intimate knowledge of how Washington works is already paying dividends. "Donna has some very good contacts," Bascom says. "We're now making connections at the policy-making level, versus the working-group level."
He adds that Alexander is also very much a global thinker, which was evident during the Kazakhstan banking crisis last year. After the quasi-state-run banks there threatened to reduce trade-related debts by 80 percent, Alexander met with that country's central banker, finance minister, deputy trade minister and embassy officials in Washington ("They hate to see me coming," she says) to make clear that if banks reneged, other banks could stop doing business in Kazakhstan. To further drive home the point, she and other executives from more than a dozen banking trade groups around the world also sent a joint letter to Kazakhstan's president warning of the consequences. Their message: "No matter what's happening in your country, you honor your trade-finance obligations because that's what feeds your population," says Alexander. The tactics worked; Kazakhstan banks have since backed away from their threat.
Bascom says that Alexander has also been an effective voice in communicating the industry's concerns about the Basel Committee's proposal that would require banks to hold more capital against trade-finance instruments. Bankers argue that the change could significantly raise borrowing costs for importers and exporters and, ultimately, stymie global trade. Alexander has personally met with numerous policymakers on the issue and BAFT-IFSA has prepared talking points for its member banks throughout the world. The trade group's white paper on the rule's impact also has been widely circulated among Basel Committee members.
When Alexander is not traveling-she is on the road roughly two weeks a month-she is often meeting with top Treasury Department officials or other Washington decisionmakers, like Export-Import Bank CEO Fred Hochberg about such issues as President Obama's National Export Initiative.
The administration has set an ambitious goal of doubling exports within the next five years by increasing the number of companies that sell goods overseas by 50 percent. Though though no formal initiatives have been implemented, Alexander has not been shy about reminding officials at the Ex-Im Bank, the Trade Development Agency, and the Department of Commerce that banks can play an important role in getting the message out.
"Our banks know what it takes for a small business to become an import/export company," Alexander says. "We don't have a political agenda; we have a business agenda. And this is about business."