After five years as a public accountant at Deloitte, a plum job for any former accounting major, Diane D'Erasmo began looking for a fresh challenge. She made the switch to finance, landing a job at the 1,000-employee Republic National Bank of New York in 1980.
But even years later, she wasn't sure she had what it took to make it in commercial banking.
In 1985, having joined Republic's new middle-market commercial-loan group as a relationship manager, she was "a little nervous that I was working with people who had been in commercial banking for so long," said D'Erasmo, who retired in June as vice chair of corporate banking at HSBC Bank USA and on Thursday will accept a Lifetime Achievement Award as part of American Banker's Most Powerful Women in Banking and Finance program. "But one night we were working late and one of my colleagues asked me, 'What's working capital?' And I thought, 'She's been working here 10 years and doesn't know what working capital is. I'll definitely be able to nail this.'"
Therein lies a paradox that has repeated itself throughout D'Erasmo's career. She exudes confidence, yet at key moments D'Erasmo found herself beset by uncertainty and self-doubt. At times she had to be pushed to accept greater responsibility or tackle new challenges.
"My biggest stretches and biggest successes came when others gave me opportunities I never would have raised my hand for," she said.
It was after HSBC acquired Republic for $10.3 billion in 1999 — then the largest foreign takeover of an American bank — that D'Erasmo's career really took off. By 2007 she was president of corporate banking for the Northeast region, which then accounted for about 50% of the bank's total North American book of business in commercial banking. During her tenure, she recalled, she built new middle-market, asset-based lending and large-corporate business units pretty much from scratch.
What D'Erasmo loved about corporate banking, she said, was that it allowed her to couple her financial acumen with her people skills.
"The clients made it so interesting for me," she said. She enjoyed winning their trust and became known for her ability to put them at ease.
Irene Dorner met D'Erasmo upon moving to New York in early 2010 to take over as president and chief executive of HSBC's U.S. operations. "She is genuinely a people person," Dorner said. "Customers just loved her. If you went on a customer visit with Diane, you found she knew them intimately — she knew their families, she knew exactly what to talk to them about — and you felt as if you were visiting somebody at home. That's how she was, and she was that way with everybody."
That talent allowed D'Erasmo to play a leading role in helping to advance other women's careers. She helped found a women's networking group at HSBC in 2001 and sat on an advisory board that promoted a gender-balanced workforce. She also made International Women's Day an annual event for HSBC, which it remains to this day.
Dorner sees D'Erasmo as a trailblazer for women in banking. "She did her best to be the living proof of 'You can have it all,' and she did her best to lower the ladder down and help people up it behind her," said Dorner.
Even so, D'Erasmo occasionally needed a helping hand herself. In 2012 her manager "gently persuaded" her, as she puts it, to leave the Northeast and travel the globe as the head of a new international banking unit.
Knowing the job required a different skill set and a lot of travel, she said, "I was overcome with uncertainty." But she embraced the opportunity to grow professionally, and fell back on her inner resources. "I am very driven and very results-focused, and I find that if I 'just do it' I will succeed," she said.
Success did follow. In 2014 the international unit's revenue grew 24% over the prior year, as D'Erasmo's team successfully built from scratch a network of relationship managers to service overseas clients who had U.S. investments.
Meanwhile D'Erasmo, a native New Yorker who had done little traveling up to that point, found herself visiting India, China, Turkey, Brazil, and other far-flung destinations.
"Talk about brave," Dorner said. "She really went for it, and my hat is off to her."
In the end, said D'Erasmo, "stretches" like that one made her a better banker and a better manager. "Plus I had the wonderful opportunity to see the world and meet many clients and colleagues I never would have met had I not been 'tapped on the shoulder.'"
Despite ending a distinguished career at HSBC, D'Erasmo intends to remain active.
One of five children, she learned from her mother at an early age the importance of community service. She sits on the board of Big Brothers Big Sisters of New York City, and for the past three years has chaired an annual fundraising event which has raised a total of $750,000 in that time, exceeding its goal.
In addition to her charity work, she is hoping to gain a seat on the board of a company somewhere that could benefit from her financial expertise. That is a tall order; it may take some time. "I have the benefit of being a woman — diversity," she said. "But still it's not so easy to get on a board.
"A year from now," she added, "I may not be on a board and I may be dying to get back to work, and maybe I'll change my mind, but I really do want to try to do something different."
Having left HSBC, D'Erasmo is able to be clear-eyed about the institution and the state of banking industry. "When I first came into banking there was no such thing as a compliance department," she said, adding that the raft of post-crisis regulations has made banking a much harder job to do — especially for a big multinational.
"HSBC operates in so many different countries under so many different regulatory environments that it is a challenge for us, and we're struggling to make it seamless to the clients," she said. "Every year we get a little better at it, but we need to satisfy a lot of different regulators, and it is challenging."