Fifth Third's Jordan Miller rose from humble roots to become one of the top bankers in Columbus.

Jordan Miller moves in elite circles in Columbus. As the regional president of Fifth Third Bank—one of the most important financial institutions in the city—Miller rubs shoulders with Columbus' top leaders in business, government and the nonprofit sector. He's a member of the Columbus Partnership—the region's most powerful civic organization—and sits on the boards of some of the most prominent organizations in the city: the Columbus Downtown Development Corp., the Columbus Regional Airport Authority and Nationwide Children's Hospital, to name three.

When Miller gathers with those movers and shakers, it's fair to say he's often the most unlikely VIP in the room. A Columbus native, Miller grew up in Milo-Grogan, just three miles north of his office at the Fifth Third Center in Downtown. That short literal distance belies the significant metaphorical miles that Miller traveled to reach where he is today, from a redlined inner-city neighborhood to the pinnacle of one of Columbus' most important industries.

For more than a decade, Miller has been Fifth Third's top man in Columbus, overseeing a territory that includes central Ohio, southeast Ohio, West Virginia and eastern Kentucky. He's navigated some choppy waters during that time, including the most tumultuous fiscal crisis since the Great Depression. Now, with the banking industry recovered, he and his Fifth Third colleagues are focused on growing in the competitive Columbus market, considered a top priority by Fifth Third's brass, while also embracing the technological changes advocated by Fifth Third's CEO, Greg Carmichael, a former chief information officer for the bank.

Cincinnati-based Fifth Third stands behind Columbus' top banking dogs—Huntington Bank and JPMorgan Chase—but Miller still sees plenty of opportunity in the city. “It's a really diverse economy,” he says. “It doesn't go crazy when things are going good. It doesn't go bad when things are going bad either. It's always been a very, very stable market.”

That optimism typifies Miller, who's known for his can-do attitude and sunny disposition. “He's one of those individuals you meet from time to time with a permanent smile,” says Patrick Losinski, the CEO of the Columbus Metropolitan Library. That isn't to say Miller is naïve or unrealistic. Rather, he just refuses to see challenges as “impossible hurdles,” says Losinski, who got to know Miller well through his service on the Columbus Metropolitan Library Foundation Board. “I think in Jordan's mind, it's, ‘Let's define the challenge and figure out a way to overcome hurdles,' ” Losinski says. “He's not someone who drags you down with the difficulty of a situation.”

Grit, faith and determination are the key ingredients in his life, from his childhood in Milo-Grogan to his professional success at Ohio's second largest bank. “He's always been inspiring to me,” Losinski says.

“Everybody Knew Everybody”

Milo-Grogan, once two separate communities, was annexed into the city of Columbus in the early 20th century. The neighborhood thrived through the 1950s, with a strong commercial base on Cleveland Avenue and plenty of manufacturing jobs in factories operated by Timken, Ohio Malleable and others.

Miller's parents, Jordan Sr. and Ruby, came to Columbus from West Virginia in search of work and settled in Milo-Grogan in the 1950s, as the neighborhood began to turn primarily African-American. Growing up in Milo-Grogan, Miller and his neighbors were suspicious of banks. “They were the kind of place you didn't feel like you necessarily belonged,” Miller says.

This was the era of “redlining”—when lenders discriminated against African-Americans—and Miller's family needed to overcome that obstacle to purchase their first home on 830 Second Ave. in Milo-Grogan. Miller's father had $3,000 for a down payment on the $8,000 home, but he was unable to get a bank loan to cover the rest. Without the generosity of the seller who agreed to self-finance the deal, Miller's father would never have been able to buy the home. (Years later, Miller learned that the previous owner was Al Corna, the co-founder of Corna Kokosing construction company.)

Miller looks back fondly on his time in Milo-Grogan, then a stable, working-class, north side enclave. “It was just a great neighborhood,” he says. “Working families who had a lot of pride in the neighborhood, a lot of ownership. … The Boys and Girls Club was really important to me. My mom and dad were really active in the community, and my church wasn't far away. So you had pretty much everything—friends, family, church and school. Everybody knew everybody.”

In 1960, Milo-Grogan began to change with the construction of Interstate 71, the north-south freeway that now bisects the neighborhood, leading to the demolition of some 400 homes and St. Peter's Roman Catholic Church. A hundred more homes were demolished in 1981 as the result of another highway construction project, Interstate 670, on the south end of the neighborhood. These projects, along with the loss of the neighborhood's manufacturing base, caused an economic decline that the neighborhood's just now beginning to climb out of.

Miller's family left Milo-Grogan in the 1960s, moving to the Driving Park neighborhood on the southeast side of the city. Like other families, they were forced out of Milo-Grogan, but a highway wasn't the cause in their case. Instead, they had to leave when the city of Columbus decided to tear down their house and others to expand a playground. That decision was a bit perplexing. By forcing out Miller's family and others, the city removed the neighborhood children who used the playground, Miller says.

In 1969, Miller graduated from Central High School, now the site of COSI. He was a good student and a devoted reader but not very challenged in high school or dedicated to the idea of college. “It wasn't very hard,” he says of high school. “I took all the classes that you needed to take, but I really wasn't focused on being a good student. It just kind of came natural.”

He went to Ohio State University briefly, but it didn't take. “I was a commuter student, and it was kind of hard,” he says. “I had to work and go to school.” When he accompanied a friend to a military recruiting station Downtown, a U.S. Air Force recruiter persuaded Miller to take an aptitude test. The next day, the recruiter called Miller. “He said, ‘Hey, you got really great scores on this test,' ” Miller recalls. “ ‘You know, you can do whatever you want to do.' ”

Miller spent six years in the Air Force. He worked as an avionics technician, fixing radio and navigation systems. He served at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, as well as temporary assignments in Southeast Asia, the Philippines, South Korea, Japan and Germany. “What it did for me was I used it for the G.I. bill,” Miller says. “It made college free.”

When he finished his Air Force service, Miller enrolled at the University of Maryland. His military experience had matured Miller, who was more focused on his education during his second college stint. He graduated quickly with a degree in finance and was hired as a Columbus-based bank examiner with the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, a bureau of the U.S. Treasury that regulated banks. “I knew I wanted to do something professional,” Miller says. “I didn't know exactly what I wanted to do, and I didn't know it was going to be in banking.”

That job turned out to be a great introduction to banking, offering a unique perspective on the industry and connecting him with high-level people, including such local titans as Bank One's father-son team of John G. and John B. McCoy and Huntington's Frank Wobst. “You're going to learn credit,” Miller says. “You're going to learn the operations of a bank, how it audits and monitors itself. You're going to meet executive management. If you're lucky, you're going to do a board presentation at the end of an examination.”

Miller was a sponge, learning as much as he could. “Whoever the lead examiner was for the bank, I wanted to be that person's right-hand guy,” he says “All my friends used to say, ‘Why do you want to do that? That's like the worst job. You're going to be here before everybody, and you're going to leave after everybody.' I said, ‘Well, I'll go in and see the big picture.' ”

Disruption and Service

When Columbus CEO spoke with Miller in early December, it was on the 19th anniversary of his hiring by Fifth Third, which plucked him away from Huntington Bank, his first private-sector banking employer after his stint with the Comptroller of the Currency. Banks, of course, are no longer mysterious and foreign institutions to him as they were in his childhood, though that doesn't mean it's always been an easy career path. Few African-Americans were in banking when he started, and they remain underrepresented today, he says.

Miller credits Ralph Frazier, Huntington's general counsel, for helping him adjust to the profession. Frazier was a civil rights pioneer, who challenged the University of North Carolina's “separate but equal” admissions policy in the 1950s and became one of the first black undergraduates at the school. When Miller started at Huntington, Frazier was one of the highest-ranking African-American banking executives in the state. “He helped me a lot, just kind of navigating different areas and kind of kept me straight and was a sounding board,” Miller says.

Today, Miller plays a similar role with his team. Karen Morrison, a member of the Central Ohio Fifth Third Advisory Board, says Miller is committed to helping others from underrepresented groups follow the path he blazed. She praises him for his support of women such as Francie Henry, whom he appointed central Ohio president in 2017, and Stephanie Green, an African-American woman he named to replace Henry as a senior vice president and director of private banking in Columbus.

“He seems to very much embrace diversity, inclusion and advocate for that,” says Morrison, president of the OhioHealth Foundation. “He not only speaks that, but he walks the walk.”

These days, Miller also needs to embrace technological change, as banking, like so many other industries, is undergoing a digital transformation. Fifth Third has a long history of innovation—it invented the first shared ATM network in 1977—and current CEO Greg Carmichael is continuing the tradition through the adoption of advanced digital technologies, including thumbprint identification for its mobile app, and investments in “fintech” companies, such as Atlanta-based alternative online lender GreenSky.

“The challenge is so many different areas of banking are getting disrupted,” Miller says. “There are a lot of new online lenders. There are a lot of different places and ways to get loans. There are a lot of different ways to make payments. So all these things are impacting banks in how they do business. They take your margin out of all of your products, and so that's what makes it competitive. Banks have to figure out, ‘Hey, where do we want to be?' ”

No matter how technology changes the industry, however, banking still provides Miller with an outlet for helping people, his favorite part of his profession. He's stayed connected with his old neighborhood of Milo-Grogan, supporting the Boys and Girls Club that gave him an outlet during his youth. Fifth Third also is financing a new project from the nonprofit builder Homeport, which is constructing 33 new rent-to-own residences east of I-71. “In Milo-Grogan today, the kids there have almost zero chance of making it out of that community without some form of help,” Miller says.

Losinski, the Columbus Metropolitan Library CEO, says Miller is devoted to Columbus. “I know how much he has done in terms of providing time and leadership to our board and mentoring others,” Losinski says. “He is personally generous as well. He just deeply cares about lifting those who are less fortunate up in this community, and I just think he has an incredible bond with this community.”

In many ways, he is following in the footsteps of his father, who used to spend his Saturdays doing odd jobs for neighbors in need: building porches, fixing electrical problems. “I never thought about being a bank president or what kind of career I'd have in banking,” he says. “I really just wanted to try to find ways to help other people.”

Dave Ghose is the editor.