Winona Women Lead the Banking Industry

by Sarah Squires, Winona Post


Sue Savat
Chief Financial Officer
Merchants Bank

Gone are the days when banking deals made during ‘ol boys club meetings, when men dominated financial markets and hometown banks. Today, Winona-area financial institutions are full of women leaders in every corner of the industry, from the front desk to the CFO offices.

When Ellen Smith, Winona National Bank Chief Retail Officer/Senior Vice President, first had an opportunity for a promotion to branch manager, she said she assumed another colleague would nail the job. “I thought about it and said, ‘hey wait, I should speak up,’” she recalled.

It’s a sentiment echoed by many women leaders across varied industries: in order to reach new heights in your career, you’ve got to promote yourself and let others know that you would like to achieve more.

Confidence is key, said Cherie Burke, Altra Financial Services Representative and Winona Rotary President. “You just have to not be afraid to have that conversation and say what you want to do,” she said.

Sue Savat, Merchants Bank Chief Financial Officer, agreed. Along with that key communication, an aspiring young banking industry leader should also network and be willing to explore different aspects of her company. “Volunteer for committees; volunteer for projects,” she advised. And, “Start with a good base of education.”

Savat explained that about 80 percent of the leadership positions at Merchants Bank are held by women, indicating the industry has truly shifted from its male-dominated past. One of the most important qualities in a good leader, she said, is being able to draw out the strengths of those she works with. “In a leadership role, it’s less important what you do, and more important what you do for those around you,” explained Savat.

Amber Hamernik, Eastwood Bank Residential Mortgage Lender, said getting your foot in the door and all the experience you can is an important part of setting the table for a career in the banking industry. “Even starting as a teller working part-time during school, or volunteering in the community [is important],” she explained. “The more things you have like that under your belt when you go into get a job, it’s going to look so much better.”

Hamernik, along with all the women interviewed for this story, explained how important women are to her company, and said that other women in banking leadership roles served as mentors for her. “Just seeing and working with other women in financial institutions that were in higher level positions — seeing what they had and what they could do — that was an inspiration,” she said.

Along with finding mentors and getting a traditional education, Smith said it is important to take advantage of any training opportunities that your employer might offer. “Seek it out,” she said. “Training is not just going to fall into your lap, so you need to be proactive.”

Burke said excelling in the banking industry is parallel to the tradition of rotarians everywhere, and, to the age-old Golden Rule. “You need to be honest; you need to be true to yourself, and you need to be fair to others,” she explained. And sometimes, careers, regardless of the industry, don’t come as planned, so aspiring professionals should be ready when an employment chance arrives. “Sometimes, it’s not something you’ve planned, and yet all of a sudden, opportunity presents itself.”

Amber Hamernikemail

Amber Hamernik
Residential Mortgage Lender
Eastwood Bank


Cherie Burke
Financial Services Representative
Altra Federal Credit Union


Ellen Smith
Chief Retail Officer
Winona National Bank