Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Pillars of North Carolina: Sue Henderson’s understanding of her value launched a groundbreaking banking career

Sue Henderson

Undeterred by a male-dominated industry, the retired banker has sparked change throughout her career.

When Sue Henderson moved to High Point in 1983 for her husband Doug Henderson’s job with the Milliken textile company, she expected to easily find another banking job.

The Savannah, Georgia, native had fallen in love with finance work after earning a bachelor’s degree at the University of Georgia and three years of experience at Atlanta-based Citizens & Southern National Bank, then the largest in the Southeast. But her record didn’t change that she was a woman, then a rarity among bank administrators. She was offered teller and customer service positions.

Henderson persisted and landed a branch manager position with North Carolina National Bank in Jamestown. That launched a 30-plus year career with Wells Fargo and its predecessors. Among her roles were helping add financial services offerings in bank branches, then an innovative concept.

She retired as senior vice president and managing director for wealth management in 2016. In 2018, Wake Forest University asked her to help create the Face to Face
Speaker Forum, a series featuring four annual events with high-profile speakers and
a goal of raising the Winston-Salem school’s profile and engaging the local community.
She is executive director, helping arrange speakers and form partnerships with
nonprofits and schools.

Sue Henderson at UNC School of the Arts

Since its start in 2020, the program has attracted famed leaders including Madeleine Albright, former United States Secretary of State; Chuck Hagel, former United States Secretary of Defense; and cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

Henderson sits on six nonprofit boards, including Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist-Brenner Children’s Hospital, Brevard Music Center and REACH Women’s Network Board.

In 2016, Doug and Sue received the Gianni Society Award, an honor given by the UNC School of the Arts for service and support. The couple, who have been married 42 years, have two daughters and three grandchildren.

Comments are edited for length and clarity.

When we (Doug and Sue Henderson) were transferred to High Point, I was told I was going to the banking mecca and wouldn’t have any trouble finding a job.
I’d already been a branch manager and a banking officer, but when I went to apply for jobs, I was turned away. They said, “We don’t have any female banking officers.”
I was discouraged.

I called the switchboard operators at all the big banks. I asked for specific information about the names of the bank executives. That afternoon I called back, and they put me through. When the executive got on the phone, I said, “Mr. Smith, you don’t know me, but if you can give me 15 seconds to share a little bit about my background, I think it would be time well spent.” That’s how I got in with all three banks (First Union, NCNB and Wachovia) and I had a job offer from every one of them. 

My first role in North Carolina was with NCNB. I was the branch manager in Jamestown. What I didn’t know was
that it was a de novo branch. The day before my first day at my new job, my husband and I drove to Jamestown and realized it was a trailer.

I went to my boss and asked, “What’s it going to take to have bricks and mortar?” He said, “We have to have loans and deposits at a certain level.” I pulled the team together for our first sales meeting and said, “If we want to move out of this trailer, I have to get outside and drum up some business.” I cross-trained the head teller to be the customer service rep. She trained one of the tellers to be the head teller. I could go out and
ask for business.

Wachovia had 99.9% of the market share in this town (Jamestown). I started making connections. Slowly, we grew our loans and deposits, and we were under construction in a little over six months.

The biggest career leap for me was when I was promoted to a regional position over 30 branches in the Winston-Salem area with First Union. It was a huge growth opportunity for me personally, in terms of development. I inherited a region that was struggling with integration. First Union had merged with Northwestern Bank. It was the first merger of equals, at that time. First Union had all the metro market branches. Northwestern had a hold in the community market branches. The cultures were very different. It was dynamic and challenging. I did it the hard
way: relationship building with the leaders of those branches in seven counties.

In the mid-1990s, Reynolds merged with Nabisco Brands to form RJR Nabisco. This delivered us an interesting market opportunity. Reynolds employees found themselves millionaires a few years later as a result of the spinoff. Brokerage firms moved into Winston-Salem to capture the low-hanging fruit.

I felt so empowered working at First Union. I could see what was happening and understood a potential solution, and they gave me the opportunity. I licensed 10 branch employees with FINRA (Financial Industry Regulatory Authority) initially, and I hired some outside financial advisers. We were the first in North Carolina, and maybe in the country, to have licensed branch employees. 

It launched me into the wealth management space. I was elevated into private capital management, and I stayed there for the rest of my career. I absolutely loved every second of it.

I think Winston-Salem’s landscape has changed because we’ve had a number of big corporations move their headquarters. It’s allowed Winston-Salem the opportunity to reinvent itself. We are a city of innovation and arts and culture. That spirit has allowed us to be entrepreneurial and attract a lot of business here.

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