As a child, Ashley O’Neal loved to count out the money her father brought home before he turned it over to her mother to pay the bills. When she was looking for a post-college career destination, however, she didn’t initially consider banking. The image she had of the industry was that of one dominated by white men, and it took a recruiter in college to nudge her toward taking a job at a bank.
Now senior vice president-retail market manager at Midwest BankCentre in St. Louis, O’Neal is being honored as a 2022 “Outstanding Woman in Banking” by BankNews magazine for her work fostering diversity in and leading the transformation of Midwest BankCentre’s retail teams.
Armed with a BBA with a management emphasis, O’Neal initially took her talents to what was then National City Bank. After a stint at its internal training program, she applied her skills managing frontline staff at an office that would eventually become part of PNC Bank. Although the branch was performing well according to the metrics, it was suffering from personnel issues behind the scenes. O’Neal was charged with clearing those up, and she went on to run it successfully for a decade before joining Midwest BankCentre in 2018.
Now managing 17 direct reports and about 75 retail employees, O’Neal has helped revamp consumer lending training and decreased reliance on paper loan applications. She has also prioritized building a diverse team which represents the demographics of the bank’s market. St. Louis is home to a large Bosnian immigrant population, so she hired staff who have Bosnian backgrounds. In recent months, Midwest BankCentre has put resources toward increasing its Spanish-speaking staff.
For O’Neal, emphasizing that diversity is first and foremost a simple matter of trust. Customers will be more comfortable with those who speak their language or share another facet of their backgrounds.
“If you build the right relationship with your customer, they trust you with everything,” O’Neal said. “If I’m able to gain your trust as your banker, you look at me as your financial advisor, right? So the one thing that I said to my team is, customers aren’t going to come out and tell you what they need if they don’t trust you.”
O’Neal cited the example of someone she’d interacted with while she was a branch manager years ago. That customer reached out again recently when they needed help establishing a business line of credit. While she doesn’t handle that work herself, she was able to connect the client with someone else at Midwest BankCentre who could help them.
“I am a firm believer that people choose to bank with the person and not necessarily the bank,” O’Neal said.
Building on that diversity brings other benefits, offering examples of success for those who might not otherwise have considered banking as a career. In a world where banks can have difficulty establishing themselves as employers of choice, it pays dividends to set themselves up as a viable option for those who might not have previously considered it. O’Neal is passionate about mentoring future leaders and sees this as part of those efforts.
“Hardly do we ever see females — especially for me, African-American females — who are in senior leader roles or executive leader roles,” she said. When she was presented with opportunities to move up in her career, O’Neal had to give herself a stern pep talk. “I told myself, I know retail banking; I know it like the back of my hand. I’m good at it. I’m a great resource,” she said. “Why should I sell myself short on not wanting to pursue higher level opportunities within retail banking?” She wants to lend a hand to others struggling to overcome similar self-doubt.
Besides increasing the diversity of her frontline staff, O’Neal also helped shepherd a transformation in the strategy of the division. Where before the attitude focused on transactions, she shifted the emphasis to a relationship model. “Asking those key questions to be able to understand what you would advise [the customer] to do for the need that they’ve brought to your attention,” she said. “Sometimes it’s also the client not even realizing what they need but based off of the conversation that you’ve had with the client, we’re able to provide a resource to help them.”
Over the course of 12 months, she has “created a more well-rounded, effective and cross-trained workforce,” wrote Midwest Bank Centre’s Danny Pogue in his nomination of O’Neal. Loans in retail and retail small business are both up more than 30 percent year-over-year, said Pogue, who is president of commercial, retail and small business banking at the $2.4 billion institution. O’Neal has also been a key contributor behind honors the bank has picked up as a Top Workplace and for its DEI efforts, he wrote.
By Mara Gawarecki