In the late 1990s, in the prime of her banking career, Rita Lowman was offered a lump-in-the-throat kind of promotion: help NationsBank close or shrink hundreds of Barnett Bank branches in Florida.
NationsBank acquired the $41.2 million asset Barnett in a blockbuster deal in 1997. Soon after that NationsBank merged with California-based BankAmerica, which ultimately become Bank of America. All those mergers necessitated a fast and furious conversion.
Lowman, working directly with then-top Florida NationsBank executive Alex Sink, closed 227 Barnett branches in one day. “I was nervous as to whether we would be able to pull it off,” Lowman recalls in “From the Farm to the Boardroom: Leadership Lessons,” her recently published memoir. “We recognized what was at stake and that things could easily topple in the wrong direction if we made a mistake.”
Lowman minimized mistakes. And for her effort, banking titan and Bank of America CEO Hugh McColl awarded Lowman the company's annual Crystal Grenade, which signifies fearless decision-making and overcoming obstacles. It was the highest award in the company, and came at a time when the bank was in the national spotlight. Writes Lowman: “This is one of my proudest moments because it marked my ability to oversee major mergers and ensure that the transition happened smoothly and seamlessly.”
It's been a career of proud moments. Lowman was a founding executive at American Momentum Bank, now a $1.12 billion bank chartered in Texas with corporate operations in Tampa. She later helped grow St. Petersburg-based C1 into a $1.7 billion bank. After C1 was acquired last year, Lowman took what could be her last banking gig: chief operating officer at Tampa-based Pilot Bank.
At Pilot, with $248 million in assets, Lowman, 64, is again thinking about how to create the bank for the future, particularly in customer service and employee retention. “We want to be the bank of choice,” says Lowman, “and we want to be the employer of choice.”
In addition to Pilot, Lowman has another significant job — and proud moment — as incoming chairwoman of the Florida Bankers Association, one of the more prominent lobbying and advocacy groups in the state. Lowman, when she's installed in June, will be the third woman in the history of the 130-year old group to hold the chair position.
A key project at the FBA, says Lowman, is to increase the ranks of mid-career leaders in the industry. That's part of the FBA's Project 2020, to help shape the industry's future. “We don't have a huge amount of people in that 30-to-45 age group who will go on to someday take our places,” says Lowman. “The C-level side doesn't have a lot of people who are ready to move up.”
Lowman published her book Dec. 1. She met recently with the Business Observer near her downtown St. Pete condo to talk about her career, mentors and the banking industry. Edited excerpts:
• Family ties: Lowman's husband, Gary Lowman, worked his up in sales and leadership positions at Kraft while Rita Lowman built her banking career. The couple, when their two children were young, once moved eight times in eight years, in Georgia, Florida and other places. “We both were very ambitious and wanted to grow with our companies,” Rita Lowman says.
• Things change: In 2000, soon after she won the Crystal Grenade, Lowman met with crueler side of corporate America. That's when Lowman says she and some senior-level BofA colleagues “were asked to find opportunities outside the bank.” She was laid off. Lowman was crushed. “It made me get out of my shell,” says Lowman. “Even though I bled Bank of America, it was good for me.”
• Contacts matter: One of Lowman's many industry contacts, Bill Klich, called and offered her a post at a startup he had just founded, Republic Bank in St. Petersburg. A one-time Florida Bankers Association chairman, Klich, pronounced like click, was known statewide for his ability to oversee large financial restructuring projects. He became one of Lowman's career mentors. “We are both type As,” says Lowman, “but we worked well together.”
• Lunch and learn: Another significant career mentor has been Sink, the Bank of America executive and former Florida CFO. The pair hasn't worked together in more than 15 years, but they've remained good friends. Two to three times a year they host lunches for 10-12 other women executives in Florida, both for mentoring and networking. Recent lunches have been held in Miami, Orlando and Tampa. Lowman says mentoring others, in and out of banking, is a big source of pride. Says Lowman: “I love seeing the success of other people.”
• Good team: Lowman continued her post-BofA coming out of her shell party at C1 Bank. There she worked with C1 CEO Trevor Burgess. On paper, that relationship is a clash: she grew up on a farm in rural Columbus, Ga., while he became the first openly gay CEO of a bank on the NYSE when C1 went public in 2014. But the relationship blossomed. “We were each other's mentors,” says Lowman. When Lowman left C1 in September 2016, after it was sold to Bank of the Ozarks, Burgess sent her a thank you note that stated, in part, “I'm so glad you're in my life.”
• Stay hot: One of the key lessons Lowman has learned in banking the last decade is the importance of branding. When C1 expanded to the uber-competitive Miami market, for example, it made a big local splash by sponsoring the Miami Heat NBA team. “ People thought we were crazy to go there,” Lowman says. “But we built up the team first and then the brick and mortar.”
• Own it: Another important lesson Lowman has learned in banking is to be strong with a board, especially one that wants to do too much, too fast. “You have to step up and speak up,” she says. “Leaders can't be reluctant to engage with the board.”
• Regulatory diet: Lowman, in her time with the FBA, says the biggest issue she hears from fellow bankers isn't regulations, per se, but the volume. “You can't have the same number of lenders as people in compliance,” at a community bank, says Lowman. “We are hoping not for reform, but some relief on regulatory compliance. We want to cut out some of the pages out of the regulations.”
Rita Lowman, fresh off writing a memoir of her 40-year banking career, is an avid business book reader. Her all-time favorites include:
• “Never Eat Alone,” by Keith Ferrazzi: Lowman models her career after the main theme of this book — make meaningful relationships in business and in life, don't just network. The book was first published in 2005 and expanded and updated in 2014 to include social media networking insight.
• “Raving Fans: A Revolutionary Approach to Customer Service,” by Ken Blanchard: The popular book focuses on how to find what customers really want in order to get repeat business. Those people who keep coming back can become brand ambassadors. “It's so simple,” says Lowman. “You can't be everything to everyone. Choose what you want and go for it.”