Margaret Keane often drives to work with her radio tuned to ESPN. While she doesn’t follow any team, it ensures she’s never left out of a conversation.
“A lot of times I’m the only woman in the room,” said Keane, who leads Synchrony Financial, the General Electric unit that was spun off in July and is now the most valuable U.S. bank run by a woman. “If the Yankees won last night, you should know because it’s going to come up. You need to be able to banter with your male colleagues — you can fight that or you can get in the middle.”
Keane, 55, has spent three decades building relationships and immersing herself in the mechanics of finance while working her way up from a Citicorp call center to the top of an industry where female chiefs are scarce. Now she faces her biggest challenge, leading a newly independent lender that’s long been ensconced in one of the world’s largest corporations.
Synchrony recently reported earnings for the first time as a publicly traded company, beating analysts’ estimates while boosting third-quarter revenue 8.7 percent to $2.5 billion. The stock is up nearly 20 percent since it began trading, compared with 7.5 percent for the Russell 1000 Financial Services Index.
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Keane is one of two women, along with KeyCorp’s Beth Mooney, running an independently traded U.S. bank valued at more than $10 billion, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. While women hold more than half of the jobs in financial services, they account for just 12.4 percent of executive-level positions, according to research firm Catalyst.
“There’s an enormous responsibility that comes with being a diverse leader,” Keane said in an interview at the firm’s Stamford, Conn., headquarters. “My job is to figure out how to get more women in leadership across our industry.”
Keane broke family tradition by pursuing a white-collar career. Her father, a retired New York police officer, had hoped his daughter would follow him into the field like her siblings did — all five were either in law enforcement or married to someone who was. Instead she enrolled at St. John’s University in New York’s borough of Queens and got a part-time job for $5.50 an hour at Citicorp, calling customers who hadn’t paid bills.
For the next 16 years, Keane climbed Citicorp’s ranks, eventually running U.S. retail operations before being recruited to GE Capital. After a variety of roles in operations and quality control, she joined its credit-card business, which works with companies including Wal-Mart Stores and Lowe’s. She became the unit’s CEO in 2011.
“She had a great reputation for her analytical and operational skills,” says Mark Begor, Keane’s predecessor at GE’s credit-card unit. “She’s a straight shooter, she doesn’t play politics. People really value that.”
One of her biggest challenges arose in the financial crisis when regulators pressured card issuers to reduce fees at the same time consumers were cutting back on purchases.
GE Capital Retail Finance, as the firm was known at the time, clamped down on credit lines to customers, crimping retailers’ profits and straining relationships. Keane spent time at stores explaining the company’s moves and hashing out compromises. It helped preserve business, according to colleagues and clients.
“During the recession, we had some vigorous debates,” says Tim Belk, CEO of department-store chain Belk. “She listened to us, and they were willing to do some things that they didn’t believe in but we felt strongly about.”
Her understanding of the business and direct manner are building trust with investors, too, said Liz Myers, head of equity capital markets at JPMorgan Chase & Co., who helped manage the offering.
“For an investor on the roadshow, there was a certain level of expectation of Margaret based on her GE pedigree,” Myers said. “We knew that her approachable and down-to-Earth style has led to strong loyalty among her employee base, but we saw that same approach engender a lot of loyalty from the investing community, as well.”
GE has said it wants to exit its remaining 85 percent stake in the lender by late 2015. Until then, Synchrony has said it won’t pay out excess capital through dividends or stock buybacks.
Investors are watching whether Synchrony can maintain low-cost funding while expanding its work with retailers, said Andrew Hamlin, who helps manage more than $6.3 billion at Calgary, Canada-based Aston Hill Financial including shares of Synchrony.
“As she grows the business, she needs to be able to fund that in a profitable manner,” he said. “That is a concern.”
GE said in its prospectus that funding costs at Synchrony were expected to increase after the initial public offering. The lender’s most recent 10-year bonds, issued in July, yield about 3.9 percent, higher than those of its former parent, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Standard & Poor’s rates Synchrony’s debt BBB-, one level above junk, compared to GE’s AA+, the second-highest grade.
Without GE, “We’ll have more independence on where we invest,” Keane said.
That means innovating as consumers switch from using cash and cards to online platforms, mobile phones and other devices, she said. She helped build a research lab and partner with technology companies including Apple. Synchrony is also bolstering systems to thwart hackers and working with retailers on ways to prevent fraud.
Keane wants to expand Synchrony’s retail bank by adding products such as checking accounts, mobile and bill-paying capabilities and credit cards that aren’t linked to specific retailers. The moves are meant to ensure customers stay put when interest rates rise rather than chasing marginally higher payouts elsewhere. Synchrony has $32.7 billion in deposits and $73.5 billion in assets.
Keane, who’s married with two grown children, says she benefited from mentoring and hopes to pass along the favor. She’s started a diversity program at Synchrony, providing practical advice and sharing stories of her own challenges and decisions.
“It’s my job to make sure we’re giving more women opportunities, and in many cases that means me spending time with them,” she said. “Life happens, and I tell women it’s OK to move around. I tell them not to be afraid to step back when you have to but then move forward quickly when you can.”
Irene Dorner’s plan to retire as CEO of HSBC Holdings’ U.S. unit this month will leave Keane with fewer peers in the business. They include Barbara Yastine, head of Detroit-based Ally Financial’s bank unit; Jane Fraser, CEO of U.S. consumer and commercial banking at Citigroup; Eileen Serra, who oversees card services at JPMorgan Chase & Co.; Bank of New York Mellon. President Karen Peetz; and KeyCorp’s Mooney.
“She will disproportionately have eyes on her,” said Mooney, the first woman to run one of the nation’s 20 biggest independent banks. “When you have an industry that doesn’t have very many women in the C-suite, the pressure and the burden and the opportunity and the obligation to perform well is critically important.”