How Wall Street Is Losing Talent to Cleveland

Small Banks Lure Talent From Big Rivals
  • Regional banks lure half of new executives from biggest rivals
  • Ex-Goldman manager: `We could give our daughter a better life'

Wall Street banks have been bleeding talent to hedge funds, buyout firms and technology companies. Now they’re facing another predator: smaller lenders in states like Ohio and Rhode Island.

U.S. regional banks are luring executives from global rivals with an ease and frequency unseen before. About half the recruits for senior-level openings at mid-size banks are people whose resumes lead with names including Citigroup Inc. and JPMorgan Chase & Co., estimates Robert Voth, managing director in the financial services group at Russell Reynolds Associates, a recruiting firm. The share was about a fifth before 2008’s credit crisis, he said.

While regional banks aren’t the biggest raiders -- they can’t match the potential riches offered by investment and tech companies -- they are highly motivated. They must adapt quickly to new regulations, technology and competition from online startups, and in some cases staff new units, so they’re seeking people from firms a step ahead, according to recruiters.

“Regional banks don’t have a deep bench of people with those skills, so they often have to look upstream,” Voth said.

In interviews, more than a dozen senior-level defectors cited a variety of reasons for moves in the past two years: the chance to influence big decisions without being overwhelmed by bureaucracy; the desire to play the hero in a turnaround; and better work-life balance. They joined firms such as Regions Financial Corp. in Birmingham, Alabama, and Fifth Third Bancorp in Cincinnati.

Executives wouldn’t specify pay, but several described it as competitive. While money often is the key lure in filling investment bank roles, recruiters said other managers typically consider additional factors when moving.

Some bankers asked not to be identified, because they weren’t authorized to speak, and some firms that recently wrested talent, including U.S. Bancorp and SunTrust Banks Inc., said they didn’t want the new executives to give interviews. Here are several who did.

Goldman Sachs to KeyCorp

After 16 years at Goldman Sachs Group Inc., Maria Teresa Tejada said it became clear: She wasn’t going to get one of the firm’s coveted partnerships.

Maria Teresa Tejada
Maria Teresa Tejada
Source: KeyCorp via Bloomberg

A managing director in London’s risk-underwriting group, she didn’t interact with many of the bank’s New York-based leaders and her work within a team made it difficult to show how much she contributed to the bottom line. She also struggled to find a mentor to advise her on the partner process, which she felt would be harder as a woman.

As chief credit officer at KeyCorp, based in her hometown of Cleveland, she found the accountability and role in decisions that she craved. Goldman Sachs is nine times bigger by both assets and annual profit. But moving from London’s pricey South Kensington neighborhood to Cleveland’s Shaker Heights added a benefit she hadn’t expected.

“We could give our daughter a better life: She could ride her bike to school and spend time in the outdoors,” Tejada said. “This was a better personal transition on top of what it did for my career.”

Citigroup and JPMorgan to Citizens

Eric Aboaf’s job was anything but boring at Citigroup. Just months before naming him treasurer in 2009, the bank took a $45 billion bailout to survive the financial crisis. For more than five years, he was in charge of ensuring cash flowed as the firm slashed assets, sold units, simplified operations spanning more than 160 countries and repaid taxpayers.

Eric Aboaf
Eric Aboaf
Source: Citizens via Bloomberg

“We put Citi back on its feet, and I felt like in some ways I had accomplished a lot -- so what’s next?” he said. The answer was building something. Citizens Financial Group Inc. Chief Executive Officer Bruce Van Saun enlisted him this year as finance chief to help expand the Providence, Rhode Island-based lender after its spinoff from Royal Bank of Scotland Group Plc.

“This is about being part of a real turnaround,” said Aboaf, who took the post in April. “At a mid-size bank, you’re closer to the businesses.”

That’s also what drew Don McCree, who retired last year from JPMorgan’s corporate bank after 31 years at the company. McCree had planned to join a private-equity firm or start his own credit hedge fund. Instead, he’s leading Citizens’ push into commercial banking.

“At JPMorgan, my experience was in building and growing businesses, but we had gotten to a place where we were major players,” said McCree, who will assume his new post in September and is moving to Boston, where he has family. “At Citizens, I saw it as a rare opportunity to enter on the ground floor and actually build something again.”

Citigroup to PNC

Joe Weldon spent about two decades at the biggest Wall Street banks, including Bank of America Corp. and Citigroup, running operations that shaped other people’s careers. He credits his wife for persuading him to consider working at a regional bank based in Pittsburgh.

As head of learning and development at Citigroup, Weldon didn’t think much of it when a headhunter called last year about becoming PNC Financial Services Group Inc.’s director of talent. His wife, however, used to work with PNC CEO Bill Demchak when he was at JPMorgan, and she encouraged her husband to listen. After conversations with Demchak and other executives, Weldon was surprised to learn how much flexibility he would get at a smaller bank to implement his ideas.

“When I talk with friends at large global banks, we all share some level of frustration about how hard it is to have a big impact,” Weldon says. “It can be difficult to get consensus and drive teams in the same direction just given the size and complexity of an organization when you’re operating in so many different countries and regions. When you’re working in a smaller company, you can start to see results immediately.”