Beth Mooney is optimistic for women

When Beth Mooney visited the Capital Region in August, a comment she made to a local reporter stuck

When Beth Mooney visited the Capital Region in August, a comment she made to a local reporter stuck with me: She hoped the headlines that greeted her selection as CEO of KeyCorp — the first woman picked to lead a Top 20 U.S. bank — would be just a footnote by the time she retired.

I took that to mean that give or take a year or two, Mooney, 57, expects women over the next decade will be a common — not curious — sight in the “C Suite.”

To which I say Huzzah!

Many of the players there already (or a rung or two from the top) are featured in Fortune magazine’s latest issue, which contains its annual list of the 50 most powerful women in business. You’ll find familiar names like Sheryl Sandberg (No. 8), chief operating officer of Facebook, and Marissa Mayer (No. 14), CEO of Yahoo. Less well-known are Phebe Novakovic (No. 16), CEO-in-waiting at General Dynamics, and Carol Tome (No. 44), chief financial officer of Home Depot.

Mooney is No. 49 on the list, just ahead of Oprah Winfrey, earning praise from the magazine for helping to steer KeyCorp back to profitability after losses in 2008 and 2009.

She began in corporate banking in the 1970s, moved into commercial real estate lending in the 1980s — “the ultimate guys’ club,” as she described it to the trade journal American Banker — then took a series of high-profile jobs at big regional banks. In 2006, Mooney joined KeyCorp as head of community banking and became chairman and CEO in May 2011.

The company, based in Cleveland but with deep roots in the Capital Region, has more than 1,000 KeyBank branches in 14 states. Locally, with $7.1 billion in deposits at 41 branches as of June 30, Key had the largest market share — 34 percent — of any bank in the region, according to the FDIC.

Like any CEO today, Mooney is dealing with a post-recession “new normal,” which for banking is characterized by “a challenging rate environment, extended low interest rate, low GDP, a cautious sentiment among American businesses,” she told stock analysts in a July conference call on Key’s second-quarter results.

In response, the company wants to cut expenses by as much as $200 million by the end of 2013, even as it explores ways to “grow revenue deep in our client base and acquire clients,” Mooney said. Over the summer, Key added 37 branches in the Buffalo-Rochester area formerly owned by HSBC.

But Mooney knows she has another challenge, too: gender.

“People will cheer you for as long as you’re a winner, but if you stumble, you run the risk that they’ll pile on because you were so ambitious,” Mooney told American Banker, which last year ranked her No. 1 on its list of the 25 most powerful women in banking.

Selected to address the dinner in New York City that honored the 25, she drew laughs and applause for one-liners about women climbing the corporate ladder “in high heels” and having “a little glass in my hair” from the so-called glass ceiling.

“We all know gender has nothing to do with the ability to deliver results,” she said at one point, and closed her keynote this way: “If somebody hands you a torch, what do you do with it? … I think the answer is easy: You light the way for others to follow.”

That’s not a bad footnote either.

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