The president and chairwoman of Trenton Bank, Roebling was, globally, the first female to hold such a position in a bank all over the world. During her reign, not only did she oversee profits multiplying and expansion to adjacent geographies, she brought in a warm, feminine touch unheard of in the cold banking sector, winning customers and employees alike with this secret sauce.
Mary’s first stint with the banking sector started as a secretary at a brokerage firm in Philadelphia, after the early death of her first husband. She quickly rose to handle a number of responsibilities, and was involved in intricate financial affairs of the company. There she also met her future husband, Siegfried Roebling, owner of two of the most popular businesses in Trenton, New Jersey—the John A Roebling & Sons wire rope plant and The Trenton Trust. They married in 1931. However, lightning struck Mary twice, when in an unfortunate turn of events, Roebling passed away 5 years after their marriage.
The sudden tragedy also created a vacuum at the top at Trenton Trust. Placing tremendous confidence in Mary, Siegfried’s own father urged her to take up the reins of Trenton, relying on her common sense and previous experience as a secretary at an investment firm. Though jaded and emotionally wrecked, Mary still accepted the responsibility despite no prior experience of running a company. In 1937, Mary was inducted as the first woman president of Trenton Trust, or for that matter, any bank in the world.
Understanding her nature of responsibilities, she decided to slog it out in the initial few months—she would run the bank in the day and take evening courses in business and finance at night.
Bringing a feminine touch
As the years passed, Mary slowly gained confidence in her abilities. Trenton was progressing at a good pace, but was still catering to the same customer base as ten years ago. Wishing to expand her clientele, Roebling introduced a number of clever marketing techniques that, not only gave a boost to addition of new clients, but also improved their retention of existing customers.
Roebling would often display her maternal sense of care when she took out her employees for lunch or distributed free umbrellas on rainy days. Her fame as a hostess was legendary, and Christmas concerts and tea-parties were common at Trenton, while under her reign. Through these activities, Roebling cultivated a friendly, trendy and fun atmosphere—in sharp contrast to the solemn and monotonous environment in most banks.
Encouraging women to invest more, Roebling invited women to her office for an investing 101 session with her on various occasions. She also opened the doors for women to continue their social gatherings inside office premises, promoting the bank’s activities during intervals and tea-breaks.
Her approach encouraged customers, especially women, to borrow from Trenton rather than its competitors, and view the bank as a friendly lender of money rather than a loan shark in the time of need.
A champion of women rights
Roebling felt strongly about women’s economic might and often considered them as the economic power in any household, since most buying decisions for any household rested in their hands.
Roebling was a strong believer in equal pay and working rights. However, she recognised that women were not assertive by nature, and stirred them to act in their best interests. In a 1965 speech, she remarked “The American woman has almost unbelievable economic power, but American women … do not use the influence their economic power gives them.”
The Great Depression
The Great Depression was the worst economic crisis to hit humankind in the 20th century. Attributed to the stock market crash, it sucked millions of jobs and led to an economy-halting 14% unemployment rate. People survived on free soups and doughnuts, and worked way below the minimum wage of $3 to ensure food could reach their families every night.
It was in the midst of such economic downturn when Roebling ascended the presidency of Trenton Trust. At that time, Trenton was facing $4 million of debt and had only $11 million as assets. Her immediate focus was to steer the bank through the tough times, keeping the employees motivated and allaying any fears of attrition.
To increase new deposits, Roebling offered one among a toy bank, a shamrock or an invitation to an art show on opening a new account. While the line of customers kept steady, Roebling invested all her free time into lapping up books on finance and business administration. Her daughter said of her during those times—“She always worked, always studied. Even at night, she’d be at home reading books about finance.”
Those 18-hour workdays helped Trenton Trust in good stead, as it survived the Depression to witness an economic upswing. This was the time when Roebling wholeheartedly immersed herself into promoting not only Trenton Trust, but Trenton itself. She would go on tête-à-tête with senators and large business owners, apprising them of the endless possibilities of investing in the trust and the future of Trenton.
Contribution to the American nation – building a lasting legacy
One of Roebling’s brightest achievement was the introduction of the drive-in bank window. Much like a toll booth operator, the drive-in solution gave depositors freedom to conduct banking while sitting in their vehicles. It also allowed Trenton to fiercely expand without leasing much expensive real estate.
Roebling surpassed many of her distinguished male counterparts in the banking sector, which showed when she was chosen as the first female governor of the American Stock Exchange. Her tremendous administrative experience in the banking sector helped promote diversity at Wall Street. Two decades later, she was also chosen as the chairwoman of the Women’s Bank of Denver, a national chartered bank founded by women.
Roebling was further chosen to represent the United States while entertaining delegates from Japan, China and other nations on numerous occasions. Her legendary social gatherings and status as a hostess made her the perfect choice for such events, hosting guests in her homes in Manhattan and Palm Beach, Florida—complete with gold-adorned swimming pools and exquisite sculptures.
Roebling’s contribution to US military was profound; she funded a scholarship for top women Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) graduates and was a vociferous supporter of compulsory military stint for adolescents, as can be seen from her remarks on the same – “The military is a service that all citizens, men or women, should render to their country.” Apart from that, she served on multiple military boards and commissions, such as the Citizens Advisory Committee on Armed Forces Training Installations in 1950, of which she was the only female member.
For a female to achieve such high level of success was nothing short of miraculous. Mary Roebling set a precedent for the millions of female bankers who would come after her, and raised banking standards with her warm, feminine and approachable way of banking.
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Anant Gupta is a Business Intelligence Analyst at KPMG.