Man of the Month Jan 2013: Robert Sullivan


President/CEO, Fifth Third Bank (Chicago)

As a junior in college in the ‘70s, Robert Sullivan entered the banking field part-time in marketing, working his way up to teller, new accounts and branch manager, followed by numerous senior level positions, and going on to become owner of a commercial bank in Ohio. “Younger employees ask about my career path. I came in, worked hard and did the right things so opportunities would come along,” says Mr. Sullivan, one of a handful of top bank executives who’s taken direct oversight of key growth markets for the company. Putting him in charge of Chicago two years ago signaled a new approach for the market. “I raised my hand for this,” he says. “We thought it important to have someone in Chicago who could establish credibility in the marketplace, showing we had someone here who could make local decisions without having to call headquarters.”

A part of Mr. Sullivan’s strategy is to raise the bank’s local profile. “Because of industry consolidation many of the venerable financial institutions are gone,” he says. Toward that end the bank has seen 222 South Riverside Plaza renamed as Fifth Third Center, as well as a renaming of the west suburban stadium of the Kane County Cougars, the Chicago Cubs’ minor league team. “We have a phrase here at Fifth Third: ‘If you build a better community, you build a better bank.’ And I think we do that by getting out, getting involved, and really encouraging all the employees to do the same,” says Mr. Sullivan. “Obviously, Fifth Third employees were active corporate citizens before I arrived in Chicago. It’s not like it was all me, but I think it’s important we take it to an even greater level. So we’ve done a lot of activities with Lurie Children’s Hospital and the DuSable Mseum. We’ve had a very big initiative around veterans, and we’ve increased our advertising in the marketplace – our overall visibility in terms of sponsorships and going to the various community events and making sure we’re well represented.”

But perhaps the biggest challenge Mr. Sullivan faces is “the day-to-day execution of the business. The world of business is so dynamic today with technology – you have so many things coming at you. I think everyone can relate to this. Sometimes we can get so attached to emails, voicemails and technology that it takes us away from the client and at the end of the day it’s all about client relations. So executing the basics is probably the biggest challenge.”

Mr. Sullivan admits all banks face even more obstacles like economic downturn and recovery. “You see a lot of headlines about banks not lending money, but the bottom line is banks don’t make money unless they lend money,” he insists. “So it’s important to have credit criteria toughened and structured, where it’s become little more tight than it was in the 2000s. Keep in mind, the reason we had some of the challenges and the financial crisis is because things had become too loose. So, I think the industry has brought that back to some sense of balance in terms of providing credit for clients.”

For Mr. Sullivan, one key component to running a successful bank is diversity. “We need to mirror the makeup of our client base and the communities we serve,” he shares. “We still have improvements to make, but we’ve made great strides, especially with women. Over 50 percent of our employees are women, more women are making financial decisions in the household than ever before, and several of my peers are women in other markets around the country. We know it’s important to place women in key positions throughout the organization.”

Mr. Sullivan has also noticed an evolution of women’s role in banking. “I’ve been in the business 37 years, and women have always had a fairly prominent role in the branches, not only at the teller level but also at branch manager,” he observes. “But if you went beyond that 20-30 years ago, you didn’t see a lot of women in the corporate arena, in the ‘trust department’ – as they call it ­– and in wealth management. Halfway through my career, I began to see more involvement, and that’s because more women became part of the workforce,. There’s room for improvement, I see it much more in Chicago than perhaps during my time in Toledo, Ohio. It’s the cosmopolitan nature of such a large city. It becomes pretty transparent when I sit around more tables with women. And I think the perspective women bring to the table is different and diverse and obviously needs to be heard.”

In 2013, Mr. Sullivan plans to continue his vision for building a better community in order to build a better bank. ”It’s a relationship business,” says the president/CEO. “We weren’t going to wave a magic wand in 2011 and become the biggest and best bank in Chicago. It’s a journey, and you’ve got to take it one step at a time .You do that by having great talented employees, taking care of your clients , staying committed to your community and ensuring the involvement of your people in the community. And if you’re genuine and authentic day in and day out, I absolutely believe – over time – people will recognize that and Fifth Third will become a more formidable institution in Chicago.”

The proud Notre Dame graduate is actively involved in a number of local non-profits and business organizations, happily putting his stamp on the city’s social, civic and business community in the short time he’s been in Chicago.


About Carrie Williams

Carrie Williams is TCW's managing/digital editor. She manages day-to-day editorial operations of the monthly print publication, website and social media outlets, contributes to a variety of feature articles and directs a team of interns, freelance writers and bloggers. In early 2013, she led the redesign of of TCW's brand strategy. Her blog, "Carrie On," is a blog of reflection and discovery, discussing how to push through life when you’re handed one too many curveballs. And finally, Ms. Williams is also executive director of the TCW Foundation, a 501(c)(3) non-profit supporting underfunded women's and children's organizations.