CERITA BATTLES: LESSONS IN LEADERSHIP
Cerita Battles knew, at 10, she wanted to be a banker. That tells you something, right there. Because what 10-year old growing up in a beautiful, historic, seaside, Florida city, says her ultimate career goal is to be a banker?
Olympic swimmer, maybe? Marine biologist, possibly? Lead singer in a band, or top vet at a zoo, or Mariah Carey, maybe? But banker? I don’t think so. (Or, let’s just say, it’s not likely. At 10, I mean. For me, personally, anyway.)
But this, of course, is not your typical 10-year old. Not even close. Let me introduce you to Cerita J. Battles, of St. Augustine, Florida. She’s pretty much always known what she wanted in life. And today, (yes) she’s a successful banker. And I have no doubt she was one, smart, ambitious, independent-minded, 10-year old.
Fast forward to the present, where Battles is at the height of a 31-year career in financial services. She’s risen through the ranks to become senior vice president, head of retail diverse segments for Wells Fargo Home Mortgage—the dominant player in mortgage lending.
She still makes her home in St. Augustine, Florida. Or as she puts it: “I was born and raised in the beautiful city of St. Augustine, Florida.” Her ties to her hometown run deep. And she says, “It will take a lot to get me away from St. Augustine.” Her parents—Thomas and Barbara Jackson—still live around the corner.
The city claims to be the oldest in the United States and is graced by lovely old Spanish Colonial architecture. It was founded in 1565 by Spanish explorers. Spain did not cede the territory of Florida to the United States until 1819, when St. Augustine became the capital of the Florida Territory.
Battles describes the allure of the place where she grew up. She says most people enjoy the downtown and want to live close to the city center. She offers three bullet points to summarize the benefits of living in St. Augustine: 1) the beach; 2) the historic city center; and 3) the shopping. (OK, that covers my basic food groups.)
Those bullet points, by the way, are typical of the succinct way this decisive executive structures her thoughts. It’s a byproduct of time spent with one of her career mentors, but we’ll get to that.
But back to that initial appeal of banking to a preteen, where does that come from? Cerita is the oldest child, and when she was young she “always enjoyed going to the bank” with her parents. Her mother and father would walk into their local downtown bank branch and get personally served by a polished bank representative eager to help them. That made a lasting impression. Bank teller looked like a dream job to her. (Remember now, she was 10.)
Cerita Battles’ actual first job in banking was with Barnett Bank where she worked as a teller. “I loved it,” she recalls. That first teller job was “the one job I went after,” she says. Later jobs she was recruited for or promoted to. But something about that first teller job held special appeal. She says, “I love to count money. I love to snap it. I still do.”
She migrated from being a teller to a personal banker, and then eventually got into the mortgage origination business. She’s spent the last 23 years in the mortgage industry. And, no surprise, she was good at that too.
Her first job in mortgage came when she was hired to be a centralized-sales loan officer for Merrill Lynch Credit Corp. She served Merrill Lynch’s affluent asset accounts. She says it was a tough job that required reading tax returns and complex financial documents. She recalls it as “a huge learning experience for me.”
She started out doing home equity loans and lines of credit. Then came purchase loans for Merrill’s very affluent borrowers. They typically were for properties of over $1 million, in the non-conforming jumbo space. She says, all along the way she was “extremely well trained.”
Since those early days, Battles has worked for some of the biggest and most respected companies in financial services. She credits a few key people for helping make it happen for her. But there’s one very early mentor she points to as key to all her later accomplishments.
When asked about her earliest mentors, she says, “there’s only one—my mom.” Her mother taught her two important things: 1) Have a heart and passion for what you do; and 2) bring a solid work ethic to whatever it is.
Barbara Jackson, Battles’ mom, also notably walks the talk. Her 68-year old mother is a nurse who owns and operates her own senior assisted living facility, Loving Care Living Facility, in St. Augustine. Battles says her mother still trains every single employee who comes on board.
During normal times (certainly not today), Battles’ job has her traveling 90 percent of the year. So she knows how important it is to have family close by. Having her parents around the corner, allows her to travel knowing her husband, Ronald, and teenage daughter, Myka Renae, are in good hands. As she says, “I have a small village” helping me out.
But who were some of her career mentors?
She has three top of mind, list at the ready, and prepared to provide details.
It’s interesting that the first one, Thasunda Brown Duckett, drilled into her the importance of communicating succinctly and powerfully. Duckett distilled that trait as being the essence of a strong and effective leader.
And it certainly worked for Duckett. Today, she is chief executive officer of Chase Consumer Banking, where she oversees a banking network with more than $684 billion in deposits and investments, 5,300 branches, 18,000 automated teller machines, and more than 47,000 employees. Duckett oversees a Chase banking operation that serves 23 million households nationwide.
Battles served as part of Duckett’s support team. And she learned a lot from her former boss. But most of all, Duckett taught her “the importance of being strategic.”
Duckett told her team it was critical to be able to distill your thoughts into a one-pager that could quickly summarize your plan of action. Battles learned that was the most impactful way to communicate and lead large groups to a desired outcome.
And it’s clearly worked for Duckett. Before becoming CEO of Chase Consumer Banking, she was CEO of Chase Auto Finance. And before that, she was national retail sales executive for Chase Mortgage Banking where she managed 4,000 mortgage bankers. And then before coming on board at Chase, Duckett was director of emerging markets at Fannie Mae.
Two other key mentors are from her days at Bank of America: Rebecca Steele and David Doyle. Today, Steele is president and chief executive officer at NFCC (National Foundation for Credit Counseling), a leading non-profit in the credit counseling space. Prior to NFCC, Steele spent her career at Bank of America and JP Morgan Chase managing retail originations, servicing portfolios and working with housing non-profits and consumer advocates.
Doyle is Consumer Lending Strategic Initiatives Executive at Bank of America, and has been at BofA for almost 25 years. For 13 years, he served as a centralized sales executive, managing a centralized origination sales force for the prime mortgage and home equity businesses.
What did these two executives teach Cerita Battles? Well, first they recognized her innate leadership talent. Then they gave her a shot at managing her own origination sales team.
“They took a chance on me and gave me a huge role,” Battles says. “They believed in my leadership skills,” she adds.
Perhaps, the most important lesson they taught her was “leadership ability is transferable.”
Steele and Doyle showed her that if you can lead successfully in one setting, with one team of people, it’s not just a coincidence. It means you have the goods to do it in a lot of different positions, with different teams and under different circumstances.
So what about the third mentor? What did Brad Blackwell, a former long-time senior executive at Wells Fargo Home Mortgage, do to nurture the career of Cerita Battles? Well, quite a bit if you ask her.
Battles is ebullient in her praise of his support. She says, “He was huge mentor of mine.”
Blackwell was in a position to make a difference for a lot of rising stars in the Wells Fargo Home Mortgage organization. He served as a senior executive at the company for 17 ½ years before retiring in August 2018.
Blackwell spent 11 years as executive vice president, retail national sales for the dominant bank-owned mortgage company. Then, he spent another 4 ½ years as executive vice president, portfolio business manager. In that job, his mission was to grow the real-estate secured portfolios (non-conforming jumbos and HELOCs), and lead Wells Fargo’s diverse segments business aimed at increasing minority and low-to-moderate income and first-time buyer homebuyer lending.
Battles says, “Brad taught me to be courageous.” He always told her, “You need to speak up” and he repeatedly reminded her “my opinion matters.”
Blackwell invested in her executive development by giving her a communications coach for a few years. She recalls briefly complaining about it, because she didn’t think she needed coaching because she was a good communicator. But he told her: “I want you to be a great communicator—not just good.”
Battles recalls her communications coach, Maria Volante, “taught me to speak to influence people, not to be preachy.” Maria’s motto was “Be brief. Be brilliant. Be gone,” Battles says, especially when you are talking about diversity efforts, “It’s easy for it to sound like you’re trying to lead people to water and make them drink.” Blackwell also said you need to lead people to the facts: “The facts will influence them to make their own decisions.”
It was similar to what Duckett taught her: “Make sure your bullet points live and they’re impactful.”
Which brings us to the mission Battles is on today.
The goal of Battles’ team is to grow homeownership among low-to-moderate income borrowers and communities as well as minority borrowers and communities across the full economic spectrum. But the task involves not only serving these new buyers when they think they are ready, but also to teach them early on how to get ready to buy. And some of it involves dispelling the nagging misconception they just will never be able to buy.
So it’s an education and outreach effort, as much as an origination effort.
But let’s outline the challenge with some bullet points, shall we?
The scope of the challenge
The quickest way to get your arms around this is to look at the numbers on racial disparity in homeownership rates in America. The latest numbers show this is a persistent problem and it’s not going away on its own.
The latest U.S. Census Bureau numbers for the fourth quarter of 2019 show the overall homeownership rate for all races was 65.1 percent. But for African Americans it was 44 percent. For Hispanic Americans the rate was 48.1 percent. While the non-Hispanic white homeownership rate was 73.7 percent.
This is the problem (opportunity) that Battles’ team is set up to tackle. And her team is addressing this problem with their Advancing Homeownership® Strategy, which is focused on five key pillars:
- Recruit and retain diverse originators to serve the community;
- Be visibly and actively present in the communities you seek to serve;
- Build and enhance partnerships with key referrals within the communities (realtors, builders, non-profits, community groups);
- Provide products and programs that enable access to credit; and
- Facilitate efforts to raise awareness, dispel myths and increase borrower confidence to achieve homeownership.
Wells Fargo Home Lending put some ambitious targets out there for raising homeownership levels for currently underserved markets. Battles team is charged with driving those targets. And make no mistake about it, Battles says, “These commitments are huge.”
During the last five years, Wells Fargo has established two separate 10-year Commitments to raise homeownership levels for Hispanics, and African Americans.
In 2015, the bank set its first 10-year Commitment target of doing $125 billion in mortgage purchase loans for Hispanic American borrowers. Over the last four years, Wells Fargo has been able to serve 163,000 Hispanic homeowners, Battles says. “We’re very proud of that.” The bank also established a goal of $10 million for grant funding to support homebuyer education and counseling serving Hispanic borrowers and communities. To date, Wells Fargo has delivered $7.5 million in grant funds.
The 10-year Commitment for Hispanic American homebuyers includes a pledge to diversify the bank’s mortgage sales force. Today, 14.3 percent of Wells Fargo’s total origination population is Hispanic, Battles says. That is three times the industry average, she notes. And her team is “still focused on growing that more.”
The second commitment, launched in February 2017, is a 10-year Commitment to deliver $60 billion in new home loans to African Americans. The commitment is intended to create “at least 250,000 African American homeowners by 2027.” The African American homebuyer 10-year Commitment also includes $15 million to support homebuyer education and counseling initiatives.
So, how is her team doing so far?
Over the last three years, Wells Fargo has helped more than 60,000 African Americans become homeowners and delivered $8.5 million in grant funds to homebuyer education and counseling providers. On top of that, African American loan officers now make up 4.5 percent of the Wells’ originator population. The industry average is less than one percent.
Battles credits two outside partners for playing a key role in efforts to meet the 10-year Commitments. She gave a shout out to the National Association of Hispanic Real Estate Professionals (NAHREP) led by Gary Acosta, co-founder and chief executive officer, and the National Association of Real Estate Brokers (NAREB), led by Donnell Williams, president.
With mortgage rates diving in the midst of virus worries, we wondered if that will be a big assist in reaching the 10-year targets? Battles told us it’s a bit more complicated than that.
“What you can’t forget about is being visible in the community. If they don’t see you, you’re not there.” She explains the relationship with homebuyers is more important than just price or product. She says, “Making sure you’re positioned in the community is critical.”
When she’s not at work, or in a meeting, where are you likely to find Cerita Battles? What does she care about? What makes her tick?
Well, clearly she has deep ties to her community.
In 2012, the Florida Diversity Council named her one of the Most Powerful and Influential Women in the state of Florida. Her local high school’s (St. Augustine/Ketterlinus) alumni association inducted her into its 2018 Hall of Fame.
And she has ties to St. Paul A.M.E. Church, where she’s known as the Reverend Cerita Battles.
But here’s a side of Cerita Battles that you might not know about: her relationship with the family’s Min Pin, a Miniature Pinscher named Boogie Broadway.
So, who does Boogie Broadway really belong to? You know, whose lap does he prefer? As she puts it: “He loves his mommy.”
OK, that settles that, but what’s the story with the name?
Now, every family knows negotiations around the naming rights of the family pet can be highly charged affairs. Someone is bound to go to his or her room unhappy. Being lead negotiator in such circumstances, almost always guarantees failure, on some level. But here is where strong leadership can make all the difference.
Battles’ daughter, Myka Renae, wanted to name the dog Boogie. Her husband, Ronald, preferred Broadway. So Cerita proposed: Boogie Broadway Battles, or BBB or B3.
Now that’s leadership. It’s a compromise, but it’s not. A win-win for everyone.
So wouldn’t it be nice if every family had a Cerita Battles available on video chat, 24/7. So those conversations about: What should we watch on TV tonight? Or, what should our next car be? Where should we go on vacation? Should we get a Min Pin or a Pomeranian? They would all be settled, no sweat.
So, maybe leadership really is transferable. Thanks, Cerita, for showing us how it’s done.