Executive Q+A: KeyBank’s Carol K. Nelson

Her regional stewardship of KeyBank incorporates national presence, community focus.

As Pacific Region executive and Seattle market president, Carol K. Nelson has been the face and voice of KeyBank in the Northwest since January 2015, delivering the capabilities of a large bank with the benefits of local decision making. An alumna of Seattle University and a disciple of its philosophy of servant leadership, she has worked in banking most of her career, including 23 years at Seafirst, now Bank of America. She also worked in the public sector as head of the state Department of Revenue from 2013 to 2015. Directing Key’s resources across a region encompassing Washington, Oregon and Alaska, Nelson defines her mission as “building employee engagement and fulfilling our philanthropic mission by supporting programs and organizations that create real and lasting change.”

EARLY YEARS: I moved to Washington state in 1964 with my six siblings to be close to my mom’s family after my father passed away at age 42 from a sudden heart attack.  Growing up, I was strongly influenced by an entrepreneurial, hardworking, single mother who owned a flower shop in downtown Seattle. 

EDUCATION: I graduated from Lincoln High School and attended Seattle University, where I received a business degree and, later, an MBA. Seattle U remains important to me; I recently finished 12 years of service as a university trustee. My extracurricular activities during college were working two jobs that funded my degree.

SEAFIRST: I often say Seafirst was a great bank to grow up in. I learned many leadership lessons, but perhaps one of the most important was that “success is a team sport.” There is nothing that will contribute more to your success than building strong teams and partnerships.

ELEVATOR PITCH: KeyBank is among the 20 largest banks in the country, with a local presence in 15 states and a network of more than 1,200 branches. We’ve been in business for 190 years. Our purpose is simple: to help clients and communities thrive. Our strategy is to preserve and protect each client’s financial wellness. This benefits clients because our community banking structure allows local bankers decision-making authority to build and manage client relationships. We are proud to be the only bank among the 25 largest to hold an “outstanding” Community Reinvestment Act [CRA] rating for eight consecutive review periods.

BANKING’S REPUTATION: Emerging from the great recession in 2009, when there were bad actors in our industry, we at Key have worked hard to restore trust in the industry. We believe our history of eight consecutive outstanding CRA ratings is a testament to our effort as well as our historic $18.5 billion Community Benefit Plan, which helped us to complete one of the largest financial industry mergers [with First Niagara] since the end of the recession. Our bankers have a long history of giving back to our communities, and in Washington state last year, employees logged over 4,500 hours of community service and served on 169 nonprofit boards, while Key contributed over $1.6 million in local grants and sponsorships.  

THE NEXT BIG THING: Unquestionably, it’s digital banking. Since most banks offer the same basic features, the industry will have to kick it up a notch. The next level of digital banking will include personalized, real-time advice and streamlined, easy-to-use apps and sites. The goal will be to meet customers where they are, rather than expecting them to come to us. To up our game in this space, Key recently acquired HelloWallet, a web and mobile-based platform that helps clients link, track and analyze online financial accounts. HelloWallet allows customers to calculate a Financial Wellness Score, which creates recommendations for furthering financial health.

LESSONS LEARNED: Your core values define who you are and should guide your career journey. My values were developed at an early age and shaped by experience. When your core values match up with your company’s, that’s where the magic happens. For me at Key, these include the value of diversity and inclusion, the importance of family, and the role that health and fitness — physical and financial — play in keeping you at your best.  

PUBLIC SECTOR: It was an honor and privilege to serve on Governor Inslee’s executive cabinet and lead the Department of Revenue. It was a crash course in civics that gave me an extraordinary appreciation for the talented and dedicated men and women who serve in state government.  

KEYARENA: Following the loss of our beloved Seattle Sonics in 2008, KeyBank’s naming sponsorship of KeyArena expired on December 31, 2010, and we did not renew it. Since that time, signage on the arena has been the responsibility of Seattle Center. Although Key valued the positive brand presence the arena afforded us, we have since spread our major sponsorship support to the Seattle Mariners, the Tacoma Rainiers and Broadway Across America at the Paramount Theatre. 

THE ECONOMY: KeyBank does not expect a recession anytime soon. GDP in the United States has been growing at 1.5 to 2.5 percent for the last seven years, and we expect that rate of growth to continue through 2017 and into 2018. 

INFLUENCES: David Friedenberg and Beth Mooney. David, a mentor at Sea-first, went on to found The Commerce Bank of Washington. His legacy included an intense focus on customer relationships and business development that left a lasting impression. Beth is chairman and CEO of KeyCorp. We are proud to be the first of the top 20 U.S. banks with a woman CEO. You could not ask for a more genuine and authentic leader.  

CHALLENGES: Washington state and the Pacific region are viewed as growth markets for Key. That creates a challenge, but it also confirms the terrific opportunities present in our local economy. We measure success through revenue growth, increase in market share and the impact we have on our community. 

Take 5: Get to Know Carol K. Nelson

PROUDEST ACHIEVEMENT: “Two bright, talented, hardworking sons. Our oldest is a business graduate from Western Washington University and our younger is an aerospace engineering graduate from California Polytechnic State University. ” 

JUST FOR FUN: “When we became empty nesters, my husband and I rediscovered happy hour.”  

DREAM VACATION: “Our last vacation — Barcelona, Granada, Seville, Madrid!”

FAVORITE RESTAURANT: “Right now, my neighborhood favorite is Bar Dojo [in Edmonds].”

OUTSIDE ACTIVITY: CrossFit — a workout regime of high-intensity, constantly varied, functional movement. “I am a CF Level 1 trainer.”


Related Content

Dawson’s job is about ensuring customers’ bills get paid promptly and correctly

Honoring leaders from BECU, Rosetta Stone Inc., The Riveter and many more

The co-founder and managing director of the Seattle venture capital firm has an uncanny knack for anticipating tech's next blockbuster hit

The 40-year industry veteran, a strong advocate for diverse leadership, manages a team of more than 400 commercial bankers