Sue Zazon leads aregion of Huntington National Bank—the same bank that launched her career three decades ago.

Banking is much more than financial transactions to Sue Zazon. The new central Ohio regional president of Huntington National Bank sees the institution—especially her role with it—more as a problem solver and people helper.

Although her entire career has been with central Ohio banks, Zazon didn't set out to work in that industry even as she was obtaining her bachelor of science degree in finance and international business from Miami University. After graduating, she considered an insurance company job offer and a General Electric marketing post before accepting what became a career-defining position with Huntington.

The Grove City native recalls she didn't know exactly what she wanted to do, and “Huntington was the only one that didn't have me making a choice right away.” She was hired into the bank's management training program in 1986. “I didn't have a passion for banking. I didn't know what I had a passion for, and I wanted to figure it out, so I thought this will buy me some time.”

What the experience revealed was that she “wanted to have the ability to solve problems, to work with groups of people, teams of people.” The training program was “almost like a post-graduate degree, where you're getting paid for figuring out what you want to do,” Zazon says. “It was the start of me falling in love with banking businesses and getting to know the people that run businesses and understanding what a family is and how I could be a partner in achieving people's dreams,” she adds.

“So that really was the beginning of my career, but it was never a love of banking. It was a love of helping people achieve their dreams, whatever that might be.”

Zazon's personalized view of the banking business has served her well. Her start at Huntington led to a job with Society National Bank, now KeyBank, where she served as central Ohio district president. From there she went to FirstMerit as the Columbus region president. Huntington's acquisition in August 2016 of Akron-based FirstMerit gave Zazon the opportunity to return to the bank where she started.

Hal Keller, president of the nonprofit Ohio Capital Corporation for Housing, has worked with Zazon in all her bank leadership positions and also on the board of the YMCA of Central Ohio, an organization she served for many years until recently.

“We've always had that dual relationship,” Keller says. “She was a great leader at the Y. She was on the executive committee forever. She's a former board chair, as am I. Then she was longtime treasurer,” Keller adds. He says he found her to be a “very quick study… very smart when it comes to the analytics of finance and of banking.”

The organization raises capital for affordable housing. “We've raised about $4 billion, and while Sue was at FirstMerit, she was our best advocate, trying to get them to invest, and Huntington is already a great investor,” Keller says. “She's very focused on understanding where the clients are, what they need and how to get them what they need and to really grow her bank, whichever bank it is.”

Calling her one of his favorite people, Keller also appreciates how Zazon handles situations that call for her to be tough. “She is someone who can ask the awkward questions in a nice way, because somebody's got to, and she's somebody who can do that.”

Jim Merkel, CEO of Rockbridge, shares a similar high opinion of Zazon, getting to know her through Columbus YPO, where they are in the same small group forum of about eight members.

Merkel says Zazon, “has a really beautiful combination of being tough but also being vulnerable. It's that vulnerable side of her that I think endears her to the people who know her. She is willing to step out and take risks, but she's also willing to own it.”

YPO forums enable chief executive peers to discuss managing business and personal issues in a confidential setting, Merkel explains, allowing members to get to know each other very well. “She's very self-reflective. … She'll take ownership and try to improve herself going forward. It leads to her ability to be so close to so many people,” he says. “She's very loyal; she has your back and she's a survivor.”

Merkel and Keller both have high expectations for Zazon in her boomerang back to Huntington.

“I'm really excited for her in this role as the president of Huntington here in Columbus. I think she'll knock it out of the park,” Merkel says.

“It's going to be great for the community as she steps into new roles and new boards and new ways to (serve) the community. It will be great for Huntington and for the organizations she serves with,” Keller says.

“I had a very traditional upbringing, within banking,” Zazon says. “I was a teller. I did work in retail. I called on small businesses. Then I called on larger businesses. Then I managed a commercial banking group.”

She was in her mid-30s and was an underdog for the position when the central Ohio district president's job came open for KeyBank.

“I decided, you know what, I don't have all the credentials but I'm going to go for this. I think I can do it,” Zazon recalls.

“You don't get those opportunities to even be in the running for things like that, so it was a big leap for me. I ended up getting that position, but it was the first time I've ever had that feeling where you take a big gulp and ‘here I go.'”

In seeking that post, as with many situations over the years, Zazon says she drew from personal and family experiences. “I compared it to what I had been through and was continuing to learn from my family situation.”

Zazon had been divorced, and when she remarried nearly 25 years ago, she and her husband had a blended family of four children. They had two more together.

She saw meaningful parallels between raising a blended family and being responsible for multiple lines of business. The key is being able to influence positive outcomes even when you can't exercise direct control, she says.

“It's been learning how to set goals, but you're not in charge of all the people that are going to help get there. (That) is really what a blended family is, and it's on steroids compared to matrix management of a company, because you're talking blood lines. You're talking about your core family.”

In her candid style, Zazon continues, “I've learned a ton. I have made a lot of mistakes, I've done a lot of things well, but I applied so many of the things that I'd learned from getting divorced, getting remarried, having kids together and then having another one.

“It is like growing a business, if you can make that analogy and kind of parallel it. I learned so much and I still apply it every day, because I don't have control of about 75 percent of the things that I'm truly responsible for, and I don't think many people do.”

Managing across dotted as well as direct lines is hard to do, whether as a parent or professionally, Zazon says. “I think that's always something I'm learning to do better and better. I have the best critics in all my children.”

After that first big leadership role with KeyBank, Zazon was recruited to build a Columbus presence for FirstMerit in 2006. “It almost felt like a startup in some ways because it wasn't established. I had to rely a lot on my commercial banking experience there and I had to recruit people to an unknown.”

She was helped by an unlikely ally—the Great Recession.

Recession-related layoffs at other banks “allowed me to recruit high performers because all of a sudden there were folks who were experiencing things they had never experienced before at the banks they were at, whether it was National City at the time, even Huntington,” Zazon says.

“First Merit never had a loss during those times. Some of it was appropriate good planning. Some of it was timing. Lots of things went into that, so I was very fortunate. I could build the foundation of a very talented team because you can't do anything, especially when you're starting up, until you have the right people. … That allowed me to

get some really good stakes in the ground with people that were well-respected, and all of a sudden people started knowing who FirstMerit was in Columbus.”

Zazon says one of her core values is “being authentic and genuine.” That includes not only owning her mistakes but also sharing her challenges, such as her 2007 breast cancer diagnosis.

“A lot of my strength, so much of it comes from who I am as an entire person. One of the parallels I can draw is breast cancer,” Zazon says, noting the initial uncertainly of a serious medical diagnosis is not unlike the questions that swirled around people's jobs when Huntington's acquisition of FirstMerit was announced.

“What I learned in that situation is that showing vulnerability from the standpoint that we are in this together—I don't know what my job is going to be either, but let's figure this out together—is really how I approached it,” Zazon says.

“The cancer parallel is, ‘I don't know how this is going to end, but we are a family of faith, and … we're in it together and you're going to see me cry sometimes. I'm going to be scared sometimes. I'm not perfect, but that's because I'm human and we're getting through this, and it's really OK.'”

And she has been OK, with checkups showing no recurrence.

When the FirstMerit acquisition was announced in January 2016, Zazon says she focused on her staff, telling them, “It's not, at this point, about Huntington and FirstMerit; it's about you and me, and let's figure out how we take a day at a time, a week at a time.”

She adds, “You have to take it in small pieces sometimes to get through the big things because it can feel overwhelming otherwise. It feels a lot better if you're taking on small pieces with somebody standing next to you.”

Now Zazon's return to Huntington has her working with some new associates, but at least one she recalls being helpful as she started her career. Zazon says Beth Sommer, then a branch manager and now a vice president, was “one of those women lifting other women up” by taking time to give her advice on working in a corporate environment, which was foreign to the daughter of educators.

Her current position heading up the central Ohio region for the 150-year-old institution has three main facets, as Zazon sees it. They are to represent Huntington in the community, be a voice for her colleagues and to be responsible for revenue growth in the region.

Internally and externally, Zazon takes her roles very seriously. Whether she's involved with bank clients or co-workers, to her it's the same: “We're dealing with people's lives and their families.”

Mary Yost is the editor.