Her Mom, Mentors, and Mountain Money Smarts Gave Asheville Savings Bank CEO Talents She Could Bank On
By: Jonna Rae Bartges
Suzanne DeFerie, the first female CEO of an Asheville bank sits serenely in the beautifully appointed conference room at Asheville Savings Bank (ASB) on Church Street. Of course she has decades of exceptional experience and dressed professionally. But she also has an intangible something special – that quick smile, strong backbone and feisty spark that speak to her strong mountain roots.
“I’m a proud Mountaineer and Appalachian State grad,” Suzanne laughs, “born and raised in Lenoir. My parents taught my sister and me to believe that we could do anything… and we took that lesson to heart.”
In fact, Suzanne is quick to credit her family with giving her the strong foundation it would take to be a woman and make it in the challenging, demanding and competitive world of accounting and finance.
“My mother was my role model,” Suzanne said. “She was born in the North Carolina mountains and didn’t go to college until my sister and I graduated and started our careers. Part of the culture in our house was we had to have a part-time job in high school to develop a good work ethic and a healthy respect for money.”
That part-time job as a grocery store cashier was the ideal launching pad for Suzanne to discover she loved numbers, she loved people, and she had natural leadership skills. She decided to major in accounting at Appalachian State University, and discovered she was in the minority.
“Only about a quarter of the accounting students back then in the 1970s were women,” Suzanne said. Undaunted, she threw herself into her studies, and immediately after graduation landed a plum job with accounting firm Deloitte & Touche. For a dozen years, Suzanne learned the nuts and bolts of the business under the watchful eye of her mentor and firm partner, Gene Hendricks.
“Back then, hiring women in the industry was something of a leap of faith,” Suzanne said. “There were no women role models – all the executives were men.
Her Deloitte & Touche position took her to several large cities, including two years in the firm’s national office in New York City. She was living in Greensboro when ASB recruited her for the Chief Financial Officer, and brought her ‘back home’ to the mountains.
“In the ‘old days’ of CPA firms, there was a pretty unforgiving ‘up or out’ policy,” Suzanne said. “You were expected to work an incredible number of hours and really sacrifice your personal life to make it to partner in 8 to 10 years. If you didn’t, you were out. That made it quite difficult for a woman to have a family and still make it up the ladder. I’m happy to say that seems to have changed.”
“Women today have much better hours, and they can take a longer time to make partner,” Suzanne said. “The culture today is much more conducive to balancing a career and a healthy personal life.”
She herself hasn’t exactly fit that mold. “I have a very supportive spouse who helps me, and I don’t have kids, so I don’t have many of the demands other women in banking do,” Suzanne said. “He and I try to get away as often as we can. We have a house at the beach, and frequently I’ll have a Friday afternoon teleconference where I have my hand on my blackberry, and my feet in the pool.”
FINDING HER STRIDE
For Suzanne, working her way up the corporate ladder to become the first female CEO of an Asheville bank was really more of an evolution.
“Accounting is the language of business,” Suzanne said. “You have to understand all the finances, all the nuances of the industry. I never really had any kind of Ah-Ha moment that, ‘I’m going to be an accountant,’ or ‘I’m going to be a banker.’
“I really liked math, and was particularly good in it,” Suzanne said. “I started taking general business classes at Appalachian State, and just fell in love with accounting and finance. There’s something about the order of the world that just clicked for me.”
“When I started at ASB in 1991, I had a very supportive CEO, John Dickson, who’s still on the Board. He encouraged me to get involved in other areas of the bank, like human resources, operations and lending. He helped me understand the entire banking operation, not just accounting and finance, which gave me a wealth of experience.”
The same way that mentors were key in helping Suzanne excel throughout her career, she, too, embraces the opportunity to encourage and inspire others coming up through the ranks.
“When I spoke to the North Carolina Women in Banking Conference,” Suzanne said, “I shared my feeling that the book, Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office by Lois Frankel is fantastic advice for young women in any industry, not just finance or banking.
“She makes her case by showing how many of the myths we’re taught in our formative years can really sabotage us in the business world. Myths like: networking is a waste of time,” said Suzanne, “or: it’s important that everyone like you.”
Suzanne’s advice for women who continuously apologize for everything they do? “Stop it! Women really need to read that book and reprogram themselves. It’s the same with volunteering to do everyone else’s work – stop it! This is how women end up not being taken seriously. We hold on to those incorrect messages we received as girls. To stop the old patterns, we have to reclaim our power and own our strength.”
BANKING ON A BRIGHT FUTURE
When asked about the smartest financial moves women in Western North Carolina should make right now, Suzanne was quick to answer.
“If you own real estate and have a mortgage,” she said, “make sure you have the best possible rates. Call us at the bank, and we can take a look at what you’re currently paying, and make suggestions.”
“Secondly, if you’re planning to purchase property, make sure you save enough money for an appropriate down payment. Don’t make the mistake of buying more house than you can afford.”
Tip three is getting, and then staying, out of credit card debt by paying cards off each month. Suzanne also suggests socking away up to six months of living expenses in a savings account, and taking advantage of any employer offered retirement plan, like a 401-K.
“At the end of the year, it’s like 3 or 4% extra income,” Suzanne said. “Never leave any money on the table.”
It’s also crucial to get the best education you can, Suzanne said. Many employers, including Asheville Savings Bank, provide tuition assistance to staff that meet certain criteria.
“We want our team members to have a family and get the education they need to move forward in their careers and their lives,” Suzanne said.
Concerning the shadow cast over Wall Street and banking in general the past few years, Suzanne feels it’s unfair to paint the entire industry in such broad, general strokes.
“Some of the trouble came from industries that weren’t as heavily regulated,” she said, “The sub-prime mortgage market, for one thing. We have had so many regulations pushed down on us from the mortgage side because of that.
“Asheville Savings Bank has 13 offices in Western North Carolina. We make our decisions locally, our management is local, and we have daily face-to-face contact with our customers. But I strongly feel there is a place in the world for large banks that can offer more complex products to their customers.”
In her rare free time, Suzanne continues to delve deeper into the work she loves. Her “light reading” recently included On the Brink by former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson. “Sometimes I just have to put it aside,” she smiled. “It can feel too much like we’re living it.”
Despite her strong track record of ground breaking accomplishments in the banking industry, Suzanne insists she has no desire to become part of a global operation.
“I have great admiration for people who do want to work at a huge bank, but I love being part of this community, and my work with the Chamber of Commerce and local businesses,” she said. “I dearly love these mountains and the people here, and the fact that my husband and I can be at the beach in just a few hours. I love Asheville’s diverse community, and being close to my hometown family and friends. I love getting up every day and coming here to work. I know this is where I’m supposed to be.”
Jonna Rae Bartges is a frequent contributor to WNC Woman, and the founder of PSI, the Practical Spirituality Institute—the happy medium between the worlds of science and spirit. PSI bridges the gap by finding common language, intent and purpose, sharing ideas and information in a credible, authentic way from both the scientific and spiritual perspectives. See her ad, page 17 for details, and to register for her next workshop: Visit www.JonnaRae.com, or call (828) 337-4017.