A Consumer Banking Rock Star Makes a Bold Bet
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because Thasunda Duckett is envisioning a bank with a heart — and using every bit of her experience to get there.
By Nick Fouriezos
This was Hollywood red-carpet treatment, only with 1,600 screaming bankers. “Bills” by LunchMoney Lewis played in the background under strobe lights, as Richard “the Ragin’ Cajun banker” Hunt introduced the keynote speaker, WWE-style: Thasunda Duckett, “one of the most powerful women in banking.” If there is such a thing as a rock star in the not-as-sexy-as-investing world of consumer banking, it is Duckett, the 47-year-old CEO of Chase Consumer Banking.
Since that moment at CBA Live 2019, back when the swanky banker association could still meet in person pre-pandemic, her star has only shone brighter. Fortune named Duckett one of the Most Powerful Women in the corporate world in 2020, a nod to her key role overseeing America’s second-largest physical bank network, with more than 5,000 branches and 50,000 employees. Short of JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, the company might have no more recognizable face making the TV rounds than hers. And it’s a refreshing one, given that in September, she became the first African American named to the financial firm’s operating committee, its highest leadership branch short of the board of directors and the C-suite itself. “She just has a passion, an intellect and intellectual curiosity that caught my attention,” JPMorgan COO Gordon Smith told American Banker.
I am absolutely my ancestors’ wildest dreams.
Not to say all of those accolades impress Duckett much. “My purpose in life was not to be a CEO. My purpose in life is to inspire others,” she said at CBA Live, while acknowledging: “I am absolutely my ancestors’ wildest dreams.”
She also has dreams of her own. Talking backstage two years ago, Duckett compared Chase’s potential with iconic cultural brands like Sephora, Apple, Amazon and Netflix. “They aren’t compartmentalizing,” she told OZY, and she believes a bank can also ingrain itself in customers’ daily lives. “We’re big believers in meeting customers where they are. Everything starts with the consumer, staying closely connected to what their expectations are and recognizing their inspiration for coming in.”
That belief led Duckett to be aggressive in banking’s most counterintuitive big bet — investing in brick-and-mortar even as most industries shift aggressively to online retail. “We see our digital assets complemented by our physical footprint,” she said, painting a picture of corner banks that become rejuvenating community spaces for local business, social gatherings and financial literacy classes. Duckett has traveled across America the last few years while leading the effort to invest in 17,000 ATMs and 400 branches in new markets. That includes obviously lucrative places, yes, but also rougher locales like Washington, D.C.’s Anacostia neighborhood and inner-city Detroit, where initiatives like the bank’s Advancing Black Pathways program for small businesses can make even more of a difference.
“We’re everywhere; we’re in low- to moderate-income communities,” Duckett said. The idea is that the simple things, like transferring money or depositing checks, can be done digitally. But the big things, like managing a plan for retirement or securing a private loan to start a business? Those “moments of truth,” as she calls them, require something else. “A place you can go and have a real meaningful conversation.”
That trend toward physical locations took a big blow from COVID-19. Thousands of Chase branches reduced hours in mid-March, with 1,000 closing immediately — some of which have shuttered for good since, as the bank reportedly conducted layoffs. Duckett gave frontline employees five additional paid days off and kept their pay the same even if their hours were reduced. Despite those obstacles, Chase’s success may keep it invested in Duckett’s vision once pandemic restrictions recede. The biggest U.S. bank by assets saw a stunning 42 percent jump in profits in the final quarter of 2020.
That financial health, even after a pandemic, has resulted in Chase continuing its expansion into underserved markets. The Twin Cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis are expected to open six new branches in four months by the end of February, while Raleigh and Durham, North Carolina, are slated for additions too. Physical locations may still prove lucrative: Mobile-user growth leveled off in the final quarter, suggesting Chase may have reached a saturation point with customers willing to bank on an app.
The safest bet going forward might just be on Duckett. Her vision was born from her experiences as the daughter of a Xerox warehouse worker whose house was burned down twice by the Ku Klux Klan in Louisiana. She was born in Rochester, New York, and lived on the East Coast until her father’s office closed and the family moved to Texas. “I know what it’s like to have a car, look outside, and you don’t have a car,” she said. “To open your refrigerator and all you can see is baking soda, and wonder how you are going to eat today.”
It was a “disrupter” program called Inroads that helped her get her first job working for Fannie Mae. Without it, Duckett says she never would have known any of this was attainable, a thought she often reflects on while on the 50th floor at the company’s Park Avenue headquarters. There, she can see the entire history of the bank, going back to David Rockefeller. “I don’t think this is the face he imagined running his bank,” she says often, “but you see, I’m standing on the shoulders of giants.” Duckett says this perhaps not realizing that, to the next generation of businesswomen of color, she already is a giant herself.
- Nick Fouriezos, OZY Author Contact Nick Fouriezos