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Banking leader aims for “bigger share of wallet”

Rose Melisz likes creating a strategy, and she’s putting that to work as director of the “cross-solve” program at First Niagara Financial Group. The effort aims to generate more revenues mainly from the bank’s existing commercial customers. The objective is “getting bigger share of wallet” from those customers, she said.

Melisz has a background in banking and law. She previously held jobs at Goldome, Alexander Hamilton Life Insurance, the Damon Morey law firm and M&T Bank, before joining First Niagara about three years ago as assistant general counsel. The Village of Hamburg resident talked about First Niagara’s cross-solve effort, and how the banking industry has changed:

Q: How important is this program to First Niagara?

A: Banks have been in kind of a rough patch for the past few years. Interest rates are low, capital requirements are increasing. There’s the huge regulatory burden. Competition is up because of the economy being down. The number of good customers out there is lower. So with all of those pressures on banks, we thought that cross solve would be an opportunity to broaden and deepen customer relationships, get greater customer loyalty, because there would be less price shopping and jumping.

Q: You shifted from assistant general counsel to director of the cross-solve program. How did that happen?

A: I was a little interested in making a change, trying to look at what potential opportunities are. Through our leadership acceleration program, which I was not a participant in, one of the assigned projects was looking at ways to grow the business from existing customers. From that came this cross-solve, the idea to enhance and expand across all manner of operating. I learned about that, I talked to the executive sponsor of that project, and just said, “You know what? This is something I’m really interested in. Is this going to go anywhere? Do we think this is really going to happen in the organization?” … I just kind of pitched it and said, “This really won’t go as far as it can go if there isn’t someone dedicated to really running these things and keeping the momentum going, keeping the direction going,” and senior management agreed.

Q: Why did you feel well suited for that new role?

A: From the legal perspective, I was involved in designing the incentive plans and programs for all of the sales positions, so I was familiar with all the issues. I also had a background of having been in sales, and having sort of starting with nothing and creating something. Those were the skills I could bring to the table: I understand what our outcome is, now I’ll create the strategies to get us there. Those are strengths and interests of mine.

Q: How is cross-solve working so far?

A: I like that we’ve got momentum going. There’s interest. A certain aspect of what drives behavior is incentive compensation. And so we’ve got those plans and programs in place as well now. … We’re seeing more interest in the sales people coming together in regular forums to share ideas, across the different lines of business, which is new for the organization. Usually people are bankers, or private-client services people, or risk management and insurance people. They come together now, regularly, willingly, to talk about prospects, customers, issues, solutions, offer ideas and strategize to create an offering for the customer.

Q: What attracted you to work at First Niagara?

A: The growth, where it was in the cycle of its existence. Certainly it was poised for growth at that point, and I like building things and creating, and it was a natural to help build the legal department at that point, because the legal department was about three lawyers.

Q: You started in banking, joined a law firm, then returned to banking. How has the banking industry changed since you started your career?

A: When I left banking, it was in the early ’90s. There were so many more banks out there, so many smaller players. Since that time, there’s obviously been a whole lot of consolidation, acquisition. Fewer, larger organizations is what we have now, that’s how the industry looks different. And then you’ve got just the glut of regulation on top of it that didn’t exist in the early ’90s.

Q: Are you seeing more women in higher-level positions in banking since you returned to the industry?

A: I honestly don’t know if it’s changing in the industry. I see what I see, and that’s M&T and First Niagara. There certainly are high-level women in both organizations. I assume there’s more now than there was 10 years ago.

Q: What would you say to someone considering a career in financial services?

A: Banking is business, so if you have an interest in business, in finance, in investments, any of those areas, there’s so much opportunity. You have to have an intellectual interest in the products and the services. To me, an investment product is so much more interesting than trying to sell a car or a vacuum cleaner or anything else. There’s so many different ways to position it, to structure it. There’s just more complexity, and so that’s what makes it so interesting.