Askville: Madam president

While Hillary Clinton campaigns to become America’s first female president, Suzanne DeFerie has already made history—becoming the first woman president and CEO of an Asheville-based bank.

Suzanne Deferie. Photo by Jonathan Welch

Before assuming her new responsibilities at Asheville Savings Bank on Jan. 1, DeFerie, 51, had paid her dues, serving 16 years as executive vice president and chief financial officer. A native of Lenoir, N.C., and a graduate of Appalachian State University, Deferie also worked for the accounting firm Deloitte & Touche in Greensboro and New York City.

In her free time, DeFerie does volunteer work, indulges her passion for music and art, and travels with her husband, David DeFerie, to their Florida beach home. They also like to visit Italy, where they were married (and had their nuptials blessed by Pope John Paul II).

DeFerie chatted with Xpress recently on the challenges of leading a financial institution amid the specter of tough economic times.

Mountain Xpress: Asheville has had female mayors and other women in prominent positions. What significance do you see in being the first woman president of a local bank?
Suzanne DeFerie: I suppose the “first” in any category provides one with both the opportunity and the obligation to pave a solid path for those who follow. … Few banks in our state, or even the country, have female presidents, [but many] financial institutions have numerous talented women who will likely rise to the top in the future. This evolution is a natural one and is not at all a statement against male leadership. On the contrary, I think it is a statement for diversity, a trait that has come to define Asheville and that will continue to make us a vibrant and progressive community.

What enabled you to get your job?
I had 16 years as chief financial officer at Asheville Savings Bank prior to my appointment as president. I had responsibility for all of the bank’s financial and operational functions, giving me a base of knowledge and insight into the strategic direction of the bank. We have a progressive and engaged group of community leaders on our board of directors who share my excitement for the future vision of the bank.

What does a modern bank president do?
A modern-day president of a community bank … wears many hats, but my primary responsibility is to serve as the leader and champion of the bank’s strategic vision for the future. That may include many components, such as recruiting and retaining the absolute best employees, assessing our service areas and product lines … honoring our commitment to the communities we serve, and making sure we consistently apply sound corporate governance procedures to all our decisions.

Asheville is also known as “She-ville,” due to its friendliness to lesbians and female entrepreneurs. What are the advantages and drawbacks for women here, especially in terms of business and careers? What could make things better?
Asheville is an amazing city full of diverse, out-of-the-box thinkers. That makes it very open to new ideas and accepting of women in leadership roles. One of the wonderful dialogues that we continue to hear involves ideas for improving our city on issues such as safe, affordable housing. With … primarily service industries [paying] lower wages and some of the highest real-estate prices in the state, it is imperative that we continue to help bridge these gaps.

What gender-related obstacles, if any, have you had to face to reach this position? How did you overcome them?
I think both men and women are presented with challenges that each must overcome to be successful. For example, women often juggle the pressure of “having it all” with both family and career, while society often places a different set of expectations for men in the workplace. In today’s workplace, I know of many men who try to juggle schedules to make that child’s baseball game or stay home with a sick child. This is a turnaround from the past. … I have always found that a strong work ethic and commitment to my employer, coupled with a large dose of good attitude, has been rewarded, regardless of gender.

This seems like a really scary time to run a bank, thanks to the subprime meltdown, a credit-and-liquidity crisis and a possible recession. How will you respond to these challenges?
There’s no question that we’re living in challenging economic times. The media report daily on the impacts of credit issues, real-estate devaluations and worsening economic numbers. … Many banks are reporting huge losses; however, Asheville Savings Bank did not participate in the subprime mortgage market, so we—and, therefore, our customers—have been insulated from many of these issues. … Higher gas prices and slower home sales may eventually impact our results, [but] we stand poised with more than adequate capital and liquidity to respond fairly and promptly to our customers’ needs.

How do you assess the current and future business climate locally and in WNC?
Although real-estate sales have now slowed … we have not seen the huge declines experienced in other parts of the country. The desirability of our area to retirees, second-home seekers and others who simply want to live in our majestic mountains continues to provide opportunities for growth.

Your bank is well established. Do you plan to make any noticeable changes to your business and service models?
It is my hope that my tenure as president and CEO will build on the solid foundation established by my predecessor, John Dickson. In recent years, we at Asheville Savings Bank celebrated our history in the Asheville downtown community by restoring our 100-year-old building back to its original grandeur. As we honor our past and the history of Asheville, we also celebrate our future commitment to the community with progressive products and technology that will ensure that our customers receive top-notch financial service. Many of your readers may remember us as “Asheville Federal” from our early days as a savings and loan where our product lineup included mostly mortgage loans funded by certificates of deposit. Today, Asheville Savings Bank is a full-service community bank. … I believe the best means of honoring our proud heritage is by continuing to build on this solid reputation for service.

How do you think you might be able to use your position to improve the business opportunities for other women?
The most obvious place to start is with the employees of Asheville Savings Bank, with leadership training for both men and women that will, hopefully, prepare one of them to assume my position one day. On a wider scale, I have heard a report that indicates that at least 80 percent of consumer decisions in this country are made by women. Assuming banking is no exception to this statistic, I expect to be able to provide a comfortable atmosphere for all customers, and especially women, to assist them with their financial successes. Finally … I will work tirelessly through such organizations as Rotary, United Way, Habitat for Humanity and the Women for Women group of the Community Foundation of WNC to ensure that we are creating opportunities for all our citizens.

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