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Finding an ideal fit in human resources

Kate White thought she was going to become a labor lawyer, but after taking a labor law class, she found that wasn’t for her.

Keeping an open mind about career options served White well. She discovered human resources was an ideal fit, and now has a high-ranking job at First Niagara Financial Group.

White, 38, grew up in East Amherst and earned a degree in industrial and labor relations from Cornell University. She worked at HSBC – along with a brief stop at a job outside of financial services – for 10 years before joining First Niagara in 2008. White now serves as executive vice president and managing director of human resources and corporate communications.

The Clarence resident joined First Niagara at a time when the Buffalo-based bank was growing through acquisitions. It now has about 5,300 employees.

Q: What opportunities does First Niagara have for new college graduates?

A: It’s important when you’re a college grad to keep an open mind about the first opportunity that you get. I personally remember that moment when I first started working, thinking, ‘Oh, I’m coming out of school with a degree, I should get this type of job,’ and the job that I got was not quite that, but it really laid the foundation for my career in HR.

So keeping an open mind, there’s great opportunity in our customer-facing roles, and that’s really where you get your feet wet in banking, and learn and understand the organization from soup to nuts. How a bank makes money is an important piece of knowledge to have, and you gain that through being on the front line with our customers.

In our branch network, there’s lots of opportunities for recent college grads. We’re always looking for folks that have a finance and accounting background.

Those skills are very important in the banking industry, as well as those who are looking for entry-level roles on our risk team, so compliance, very entry-level audit positions, those sorts of roles. This position is the steppingstone. Take the opportunity to soak it in. Network with people in the organization to learn more about other areas, and use that to your advantage as you grow your career with an organization.

Q: How many job openings does First Niagara have?

A: Across our footprint, we have about 400 openings right now, about 250 in Western New York. We have positions obviously in our customer-facing roles in our branches: tellers, relationship bankers, branch managers.

On the commercial side, relationship managers, portfolio administrators and credit analysts. In the support functions, finance, audit, risk, compliance analysts, financial analysts, auditors.

There are some project manager positions open, as well. Lots in our IT department, developers and architects. A lot of positions really tied to our strategic investment plan.

Q: What is the job market like now for experienced employees compared to a few years ago?

A: There’s definitely more competition than there was to hire people. But there’s still lots of people out there looking. They’re not as active job seekers as they probably were in 2008, 2009.

They’re much more passive. And that takes some extra effort to convince somebody to leave a stable position and something that they like to go somewhere else.

Q: Is it difficult to recruit people from outside Buffalo to take jobs here?

A: Buffalo has in the past created a little bit of a challenge. We don’t have the best reputation for weather. When I started in 2008, certainly in 2009, 2010 and 2011, we were actively recruiting and we relocated a number of people to Western New York who are now Western New York champions, Scott Fisher (managing director for retail channels and wealth) being one of those.

I think part of the secret or part of the equation is, we have leaders here who are Western New York champions, and we make sure that we hook potential candidates up with those individuals to really give them that personal tour of Western New York, help make those connections, particularly if somebody is interested in a certain philanthropic organization or area, if they have a spouse or a partner or family members, making sure we’re connecting spouses with spouses, kids with kids, candidates with schools and sports programs, and that sort of thing.

Q: What process does First Niagara use for reviewing job candidates?

A: Our preference is that you go through the website, for a whole host of reasons. But certainly it allows us to track a candidate’s progress and ultimately you’re going to go through there anyway. But I’d be kidding you to say that we don’t have a great network of employee referrals and we get resumes on a regular basis from our team members. That’s a great way to network and get your resume in front of somebody, but ultimately we will ask you to apply through our online system.

Q: Are there good candidates coming out of local colleges?

A: Absolutely. … Individuals coming out of college have such a sense of teamwork. It’s almost natural for new grads to have that sense of collaboration and that teamwork and a real fire in their belly, a passion.

They’re coming out of school, wide-eyed, looking for that opportunity and they want to take on the world. If you could bottle that up and keep it forever and ever and ever, that would be great. We do find new college grads in particular have a lot of what we’re looking for.

Q: What about turnover? How do you keep employees on board?

A: We’ve worked really hard at building a collaborative, transparent culture that rewards and recognizes our team members for their performance. And that’s why people stay with us.

I won’t say people don’t leave us, and competition for talent is fierce. But we work very hard on keeping true to those things: collaboration, transparency, reward and recognition, valuing our employees.

And when something’s not right and we know about it, we fix it. And making sure people have opportunity to grow in their careers. It might not always be to that next level, but to expand their skill set horizontally and engage in the really interesting work we’re engaged in.

Q: What is it like serving on the bank’s executive management committee?

A: I have the opportunity to work with a great group of executives who have a real passion for financial services and their team. It’s a great learning opportunity. How often do you get to sit around the table that gets to make the strategic decisions for an organization?

Talent is front and center in a majority of our discussions. You can’t deliver the products and services as a financial services organization without our talent, without our people. … There’s only eight of us, and we all have a chance to have our voice heard.