From West Coast to London, she's changed the way we bank

Deanna Oppenheimer, a University of Puget Sound alumni, poses last week on the campus where she is on the board of trustees. Oppenheimer has two children attending UPS, and she is the head of retail banking for Barclay's Bank in London.
Deanna Oppenheimer, a University of Puget Sound alumni, poses last week on the campus where she is on the board of trustees. Oppenheimer has two children attending UPS, and she is the head of retail banking for Barclay's Bank in London. The Olympian

The daughter of an Idaho farm family, Deanna Oppenheimer went on to change the way America – and now the people of Britain – do their banking. She has been recognized in the financial press as one of the most powerful bankers both here and abroad.

Following positions at Sunset magazine and in market research, Oppenheimer began her banking career at Washington Mutual – rising within senior management positions to become president of the consumer group. Leaving WaMu at what can best be described as the right time, she was soon recruited by London-based Bar-clays in 2005.

As she did in Seattle at WaMu, Oppenheimer has taken a sleepy and neglected retail banking department and gained both market share and further acclaim. She now directs Barclays’ retail operation – with 30,000 employees and 1,700 branches daily serving 800,000 customers who do a total of 1 million transactions.

Where she introduced the un-bank, living-room “Occasio” concept at WaMu branches, she has now created a new design for Barclays branches.

Oppenheimer was valedictorian for a high school class of 61 students, and academia has remained one of her passions. She graduated from the University of Puget Sound in 1980, and next month will end seven years of service as chairwoman of the school’s board of trustees.

The Oppenheimers – her husband, John, is also a UPS graduate – have a daughter and a son, Jeni and James, she a senior and he an incoming freshman.

Deanna Oppenheimer was at the Tacoma campus one sunny day last week during family orientation.

What brought you from Parma, Idaho, to Tacoma?

I was really interested in a smaller liberal arts school near a metropolitan area. My sister had gone to (University of) Puget Sound – and I came on a day like this. It’s a spectacular campus . I just fell in love with it. Also, I found there was incredible interaction with the professors.

Did you see yourself becoming the person you’ve become – having a direct effect on the way millions of people do their banking?

In Parma, somebody told me that if you do your job well, you don’t have to worry about the next one.

At one point I was looking for companies that were being deregulated, and searched in utilities, the airlines and banking. I interviewed in all three. I was offered a role – government relations and sales development – at Washington Mutual. I wanted an interesting experience. I wanted a Seattle-based company. I wanted to be able to move up, but not have to move across the country. I thought I’d be there for two years and leave, and do something entrepreneurial.

Instead, you were responsible for “Occasio,” and much of the integration of WaMu’s 36 acquisitions, and you were recognized throughout the industry. Then in 2005 you left. I have to ask why.

I’d been there 20 years. I was leading a part of the business that had 2,000 branches and $360 billion in assets – which was $2 billion when I began. I wanted to retire, which I did.

Did you see the end coming?

Nobody saw that coming.

Why Barclays?

I got a call from a headhunter. I had studied abroad in London – there were two brands that were positive for me: McVitie’s chocolate biscuits and Barclays. At Barclays, the people who lead the company are incredibly bright and talented. The brand is incredible, and they needed help with retail banking. And, it’s London. I told them that I wasn’t really central casting – I’m an American woman from the West Coast – I may do something different. I spent a lot of time listening, and going out and meeting people. The branch refurbishment – it’s a great design. You feel like you’re going into a retail or hotel space. We’ve pioneered Microsoft surface technology – we’re the first bank in Europe to do that. It’s about 200 little things. We call it “real retail.”

An American woman from the West Coast tries to change the way English bankers conduct business. How smoothly has that gone, inside the bank?

One-third of the people say this is the greatest thing. One-third say they’re definitely not going to get on board. One-third say they’re not on board. You have to set expectations clearly. You say this is the way it’s going to be. Behind the ones that were the most resistant to change are some of the best people.

Please define leadership.

Consistency, the articulation of the message. Communication. The reason some people don’t do things is that they’ve been burned in the past. You have to articulate the boundaries. And to maximize the market, we let our people know the research – about their neighborhood and their customers. Leadership defines the parameters of where you want innovation to happen.

Do you have any advice for consumers?

The one thing is knowledge. And saving is important. The third thing, they should know that this, too, is a cycle.

You’ve accomplished a lot. What gives you the greatest satisfaction?

At (the University of) Puget Sound, I chaired the search committee (for a new president) and kicked off the capital campaign. We’re at $50 million, with a goal of $125 million. Also, John and I fell in love here.