What Matters Most – 120th Anniversary Conversations with Jeannette Fitzwater

Today, as part of our ongoing 120th Anniversary series, we speak with Jeannette Fitzwater, former Senior Vice President and Director of Corporate Services at First United. Jeannette talks about her background, how her 30-year career at the bank started, favorite memories from her time in the bank, and what it means to be part of a company that has a history, 120 years in the making!


Male 1: Welcome to the “What Matters Most” podcast, presented by First United Bank & Trust. That’s My Bank. Visit us today at mybank.com.

Eric: Hello and welcome to “What Matters Most,” the podcast all about finances, community, savings, and security for you, your family, and your business. This podcast is brought to by the helpful folks at My Bank, First United Bank & Trust. I’m your host Eric Nutter. And in today’s episode “What Matters Most” is First United’s 120th anniversary. And for this, in our ongoing discussion, I’m honored to be joined remotely today by Jeannette Fitzwater, a former senior vice president and director of corporate services at First United. Good morning, Jeannette, how are you?

Jeannette: I’m great. How are you doing, Eric?

Eric: I’m doing really well. I really appreciate you joining me today. And we’ve got this ongoing series that we’ve had for the last month or so. We started in November. As you know, First United celebrated its 120th birthday on November 15th in 2020. And so, we’ve had this ongoing series where we’re talking with current and former associates and kind of learn a little bit more about the people that make up First United. So I really appreciate you taking the time to meet with me.

Jeannette: I’m looking forward to it.

Eric: Yeah. So, let’s start with a little bit about how you’re doing right now. How have you been holding up in the pandemic? And, you know, we’re still…I think we’re in month 10, 11 of this. So, how have you been?

Jeannette: Well, gee, my social life is great you can imagine. No, actually we have fared very well. We’re fortunate we still have a home in Oakland, and then, we have a home in Florida. And we spent a little bit more time, in Florida, this year just because no one’s really traveling back and forth quite as much. But it’s actually gone very well. One of our youngest daughters actually stayed with us for several months. She escaped out of New York City. And that’s been an adjustment but has actually been a real blessing. So I guess there’s positives and there’s challenges with any pandemic.

Eric: Yeah, absolutely. So the family’s good, everybody’s healthy?

Jeannette: Oh, absolutely. The other two are working in Columbus and it’s all going well. And Megan started a new job, so life is good.

Eric: Excellent, excellent. All right, well let’s start a little bit. Let’s go in the wayback machine and talk a little bit about your background. Tell us a little bit about yourself and kind of what led you to a banking career?

Jeannette: Well, I can tell you it was never my plan. And I think that’s probably true with a lot of people. As many people know, I grew up in Oakland, certainly where the headquarters of the bank has been. And I was an account holder and very involved with the bank over the years. And I went to college in Ohio and I graduated in the year 1983. Which you don’t remember but, I can tell you, it was a recession year. Nobody was hiring anyone, so I ended up back in my hometown working for a family business. And as I was thinking about this, I was trying to remember exactly how it happened, but in 1985, I remember having a conversation with Ben Ritter [SP]. And we talked about marketing. And I had an HR degree, a business degree. And we started talking about marketing and I said, “Sure, that’ll be great,” I had A class in marketing. As it turned out, they took a chance on me.

And I continued with the company for 30 years. I started through marketing, and then, had a role, like yourself, as a marketing director. And when Bill Grant took over as CEO, he wanted to make some changes. And I moved over to the HR division and I was there. Then, eventually over both of those. And the nice thing about a company like First United, I think even still, [inaudible 00:03:51] that there’s opportunity and you can try different things.

So, I had the opportunity to be a retail division, at one point, be over our insurance division. When we had that, I got to grow training areas. So I really popped a lot between marketing and HR, and that’s kind of where that title comes at the end. There was not a good title for this mishmash of things that I did, so I got to make up my own title, that’s kind of a funny story. But it worked and I had a lot of good experiences.

And the nice part is, since then, I’ve been able to do some consulting on training for the DiSC behavioral model that we took through the company. So I still get to keep my fingers in the pot, here and there, and get to see some of my friends. So it’s really been a wonderful career and opportunity for me.

Eric: Absolutely. So, growing up around Oakland where the bank started, what’s your earliest memory of the bank?

Jeannette: Well, actually for me…my father was on the board of directors, and so, of course I always had a fondness. But I remember, as a child, him taking me in and getting my first savings account. And I don’t know, I was probably 6-years-old and, you know, you put your birthday money in. And I remember telling everyone that this was such a joke, this is so ridiculous. “I just keep putting money there and I never see it again.” I could not understand why he was encouraging me to put money in this black hole, which of course did grow up. And I can imagine, in his role, he thought, “Now, come on, Jeanette, really?”

Eric: That’s cute. Do you still have that same account by chance?

Jeannette: Well, I believe that I probably do, now that you mentioned it. I think that’s funny.

Eric: I had a conversation with Gene Helbig and he mentioned the same kind of thing. He had an account that he opened when he was running a paper route or something and that he still has the same account number to this day. Lots of change but he still has the same account number. So, I thought that was funny.

Jeannette: Well, and you know what’s interesting, and Gene would be a great example, I’m not living in Oakland anymore. I have been able to continue my banking with First United and had no need to open up an account in Florida because of how the bank has grown. So yes, to go from a childhood savings account to the needs that you have as a retiree, that’s pretty good.

Eric: Yeah, absolutely. Well, and to another point that you made, you know, the experience during your career, kind of going through different roles within the organization. We’ve also talked a little bit about that with others, about how it’s easy to look at a bank and think there are just banking jobs and that it’s just, you know, you’re just gonna be a teller or you’re going to be a branch, you know, sales person or something. And to not understand that there are so many opportunities internally and the path that you can take is sort of unlimited…so, you know, do you have any thoughts about that and kind of how that affected your career?

Jeannette: No. I think it is a great opportunity. I think we all need to appreciate that. And again, that points somewhat to the size and the culture. If you’re in a very large bank, while they have lots of dollars for training, and I used to love to hire people that came from a large bank because they came with that experience, you didn’t have the same kind of opportunities longer term that you have in a smaller organization. And I remember so well being involved with Maryland Bankers and Kathleen Murphy, the head of that organization, the various people, just being amazed at the talent that we had at First United. Many of our bankers got the top award when they would go through Maryland Banking School. Now, that was not Jeanette but a lot of the others did. And they were just amazed at the quality and the leadership coming from, you know, the headquarters in a very small town.

And, you know, because you are in a small town, you don’t generally go across the street and hire somebody that has all these years of experience, you grow within. And you grow by being in different areas. And it certainly gives you a different perspective. You know, the small amount of time that I was over a retail region certainly gave me perspective when I’m working with teams in terms of their HR needs or marketing needs. It’s pretty exciting.

And the other thing I was thinking about and preparing for this that I think is not true maybe of all organizations, I was fortunate as a woman to be able to grow up through an organization and become an executive officer. As have other women. And, you know, there’s a lot of leadership with women, half the board is typically women at First United. We have a female CEO. I can honestly say I never felt like I had any barriers going through. And that’s just not true of many peers that I have. And maybe I even took it for granted, at the time, because that’s how it was. But I certainly do appreciate it.

Eric: Yeah, that’s a really good point and something that the bank has actually been recognized by 20% by 2020 women on boards. There’s a winning company recognition kind of thing that they put out, recognizing companies who have that representation on boards and in the executive management team. So it’s cool to be a part of a company that, not only has so many different opportunities internally for its size but also has that sort of thought leader perspective to kind of be forward-thinking in the way of representation across the board and management and on the board.

Jeannette: Absolutely. And it’s really not just a 2020 thing, we were receiving that kind of recognition many years ago. Very unusual.

Eric: Yeah, absolutely. So, was there more to your landing at the bank than beyond recessionary measures of getting you back to Oakland? Was there more to it than that or was that kind of the end of the story? You found yourself back in Oakland and landed at the bank or was there…

Jeannette: That is really the story. I was working for my father’s business and he was going through illness at the time. And he’d gotten better then. And I knew that it was time to be looking and we considered other retail stores and that really didn’t work. And, you know, in a town like Oakland, again, a major leader, a major employer is the bank, I was familiar with it. And I knew some of the people and it just worked out to be very good. I don’t know that I would’ve been the perfect teller or some of the other roles, but I had the opportunity to grow in the areas that I had some expertise in. And certainly, it was a wonderful experience. But, you know, as many of us know, it’s just not always the direction you thought you were going to go in. And thank heavens I did.

Eric: Yeah, yeah. Well, I mean and, over the course of a 30-year career, a lot changed within the organization. And you and I, we worked together on parts of that as we were in marketing together and working through a lot of the rebranding that happened in in 2016 and the years, the multiple years leading up to that to try to get to that point. So…

Jeannette: Well, the nice part is I got to be involved with it starting to happen. You had to do all the hard lifting. I could just enjoy the results of it. But it was certainly a far cry from what I remember early on when…I guess, let’s say, ’85, ’88, ’87, I don’t remember the years, but when we came up with the first brand, with the logo…it was ’83. And that really came about, if you recall, of Ben Ritter and Bill Grant kind of going to the mountain drawing something up. And that was it. You know, that’s how it all happened. And then, you look at where we are today and what you’re doing. It’s pretty phenomenal. But it’s a progression, it all makes sense. And the legacy part of the branding is still there but certainly in a more progressive way. And I think it’s exciting to see. And certainly the amount of electronic types of services too.

Eric: Sure, yeah. Now, the thing you’re referencing from the late 80s was the My Bank? Was that kind of the creation of My Bank?

Jeannette: Well, that came a little bit later, but yes. Yeah. And the whole idea of My Bank…and I’ve probably told you this story but maybe the others haven’t heard it, I’ll never forget when Bill and Ben came up with this tagline. And I think I was Marketing Director, at the time, and they told me, I said, “That is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard of. It just sounds like a hokey small town thing. That will never work.” And of course I laughed because it absolutely did work and still continues to work. And because people understand that personal connection and what it is. And I know from studies that we went through, at certain times, they didn’t remember First United but they remembered My Bank. So I ate my words and laughed many times about how wrong I was on that.

Eric: Yeah. It is cool to see. And it is definitely something that makes us stand out. I still remember, one of my favorite memories is when, in my tenure here where we were able to get mybank.com, like to get the domain name, that was one of the most exciting things in my nerdy little life here of seeing something like that.

Jeannette: It took you a couple of tries with that but you got it.

Eric: Yeah, that was exciting though. That’s a cool thing.

Jeannette: Yeah, I mean but to think just how simply that started and then it took off, it’s pretty exciting.

Eric: Absolutely. So, being…as you know, as a trusted community bank, we’re celebrating our 120th anniversary. So, I’m curious, from your point of view, what does 120 years of being a community bank mean to you?

Jeannette: Well, for one thing, I think it’s a real niche at this point. A lot of people, obviously, started that, there have been a lot of banks. And very few are, you know, truly community banks at this point. Many of them are no longer independent. It’s such a difference, and especially because I was headquartered in Oakland where the headquarters were, but, you know, you sit on a board and there’s always a First United representation. How many local leadership opportunities are bankers. And the nice thing is everyone knows that being involved in the community is good for business development. But what I really found with the culture of First United is people were there because they sincerely cared. Whether it’s on the local ball field or it’s a large economic-development issue or whatever, they care, they recognize people. These are their friends, their neighbors, they’re serving on different organizations together. They have to face that person. So there’s truly a trust in a relationship.

And again, I have a lot of respect for large banks and what they can bring to the table. Fortunately, as community banks, we can mimic most of that but it’s tough to mimic the culture of a community bank and the caring. And I think that still stays and it’s certainly throughout the whole organization. But I saw it most especially in the Oakland area where we were headquartered, a pretty big influence in the community and well respected.

Eric: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. Well, and we find it prevalent throughout our footprint and all of the different communities we’re involved in. It’s amazing to see how involved and how our associates, at First United, just want to be involved. And to your point, it’s not forced upon them, it’s something that they all truly enjoy and want to get involved in, want to be on that non-profit board, or a part of that organization, to help out in the community. And it’s really rewarding to see that. And sometimes you almost take it for granted internally because it’s just who we are, it’s who the people are.

Jeannette: Yeah, it’s the culture. It absolutely is. And I know that, since I’ve retired, the bank has gotten really good, I think, at really fitting that culture, maybe even better than what we had done. And so, you’re really recruiting those kind of people, it’s not that you’re teaching them that, that’s who they are. And that’s why they stay for so long, the tenure is huge as, you know, like myself, 30 years. It’s about the people and the relationships and really a sense of pride and teamwork. Through bank issues, you know, certainly the great times when, you know, you be opening up in new market areas and new services, that’s always exciting. But also that pulling together, you know, when there’s an economic downturn or something terrible happened and you’ve gotta figure out how to fix it. People pull together and there really is a true sense of teamwork across the board.

Eric: Absolutely. Absolutely. So let’s talk about…when you were here, when you were at First United, what got you out of bed every morning? You know, you come to the same place for 30 years, there’s something getting you out of bed to, you know, come in and share your expertise with the organization. What did you look forward to each morning?

Jeannette: Well, it was a pride thing, it was relationships. As I had the opportunity to grow in my career, you felt like you had a lot of constituencies. You obviously had the shareholders, your employees, your customers. And, you know, you carry a lot on your shoulders with that but it’s pretty exciting and feeling like you can make a difference. I personally always have enjoyed growing associates, bringing in the right people, providing them the resources, and setting them free, and seeing what they can do. And that’s probably the greatest satisfaction that I had in banking, over the years, was watching that. Seeing people like myself, you know, moving around into different areas and growing, and fortunately, still being involved somewhat. I get to see the benefit of some of that today, people like yourself. I mean it’s very exciting to watch people coming in after college, and then, looking at what they can do, you know, several years later.

Eric: Right, yeah. It’s cool to see that internally and for everyone to sort of espouse that coaching mentality. I think that’s something that First United has always preached. And internally, we treat it, we call it that, we call it coaching. And it’s that we’re trying to encourage everyone to move up and to do more and to do better and to improve. And it’s that constant improvement, that kaizen that we talk about internally.

Jeannette: Yeah, it really is. And if you recall back to the days when Bill Grant took over, he was the one that referred to the executive group as the coaching team. And his idea was, just as you’re saying, “We are simply the coaches of the team.” And then, it continued with of course more formalized coaching and mentoring and growing and that kind of thing. And gosh, I feel like I’ve been teaching coaching and mentoring, I don’t know, 15 years or so because I continue doing that. Maybe 20, I don’t know. So I think we were ahead of it and getting some structure behind it. But really the concept of being there and certainly Chuck and Amy and things have just taken it to much higher levels, as things go on.

Eric: Yeah, yeah. It’s cool, it’s cool. Tell me about some of your favorite memories of being at the bank or part of the community?

Jeannette: Well, I think, you know, you would think those big favorite memories are a big launch of this product or whatever. But, you know, it’s really not. It’s about people, it’s about experiences. You referenced Gene Helbig, I mean I’ll never forget, he was doing something with a big stuffed dog as a campaign in the trust area. You may remember that. And amazingly that dog just kept getting stolen and showing up different places. I just can’t imagine how that happened but there were several of us involved. You know, it’s breaking the stress of other stuff and it was humorous and it was fun. Certainly, all the town, the Veterans Day events where we got everybody together, and you were talking earlier about skits and things, I mean those were pretty hysterical, all about making us look stupid. And it was very successful.

We were also very successful at looking stupid right after Bill took over and he decided we were going to have a picnic. And the coaching staff was going to compete in softball against the other employees. It was pretty miserable. And believe me that they figured out I had no talent at all on that end. But I did have a hat that said “Coach,” so I guess it shows I was involved. But, you know, it’s those kinds of things.

And then, you know, like going to the call center. And they do such a wonderful job. But I remember going in there and how they would decorate all their cubicles for Christmas. It was just hysterical. They’d have fireplaces, whatever. But at the same time, they’re blowing out their customer service and the goals and so on. It was just a culture of who they were. And I don’t know how much that happens in other organizations but we had an acceptance of that and a joy of some of those things. And today, even when I go in and being able to, you know, recognize people and talking to them and them, you know, asking where I am and the kids and me doing the same thing with them, you just feel as if it’s family. And those are the kinds of memories that I’ll always enjoy. I certainly enjoy the opportunities and the growth that I had but it’s those personal relationships that really keep you going.

Eric: Right. Yeah and I think that’s been… internally we know this for a fact that it’s about the people and that’s part of who we are, that’s why the organization is as special as it is, it’s because of the people. But it’s been cool to see and to hear from everyone we’ve talked to, during this whole 120th anniversary series, that, when asked questions along those lines, favorite memories, favorite thing that you look forward to, the answer always revolves around that. It’s always about the people, it’s about the relationships. And it’s touching to hear.

Jeannette: Yeah, it really is. You look back, it’s your peers, it’s your mentors over the years. You know, Ben and Bill were great to me and grew talents and gave me opportunities and allowed me to fail, “Get back up.” It was all good.

Eric: Yeah, yeah. Absolutely. Well, and it’s also clear for anyone who’s listened to more than just this one episode that the dog, the big-dog contest that Gene ran clearly had an impact on a lot of people because…

Jeannette: Oh, that’s funny.

Eric: It has come up in almost every interview.

Jeannette: Well, I hate to admit it, I haven’t listened to the others yet, I plan to, but that’s funny that that was one of those memories. We just had so much fun and getting Genes go to…he was just…

Eric: Yeah, yeah. We enjoyed that. So my last question for you, Jeannette, is, after 120 years of helping people, what do you think comes next for First United?

Jeannette: Well, I hope it’s more of the same. Now, I know it’s going to look differently, obviously, just like, you know, the rebranding and the reimagining of retail and things. You know, the process may be a little bit different, but still, that care and being a part of the community, you know, hopefully, remaining independent, but, at the very least, being that strong part of the community and making a difference and really being that mix of progressive but still somewhat family and culture-oriented, continuing to grow talent, I think that’s key, obviously, that was important to me. And I think that can go on. But really keeping as much of that culture. And I certainly see it with Chris’s leadership and what’s going on that it is. I mean you’re going to have some differences in the approach but the overall culture is extremely strong. And that’s really the point of difference.

And I think that can continue. Maybe I’m naive but I think there’s a place, there’s a place for a different kind of organization that has to, obviously, be progressive and keep up but really caring and seeing people on the street and recognizing them and just having that…I don’t know, that relationship, that responsibility of taking care of people. I just hope that can continue.

Eric: Absolutely. Well, I agree with you and I believe that it can and we try to prove that every day. So I’m happy to hear those thoughts because that’s where we’re at.

Jeannette: That’s what you’re doing, that’s right.

Eric: That’s what we’re doing. All right. Do you have any final thoughts, any final comments for any of the folks internally that may be listening, you know, that haven’t seen you in a while?

Jeannette: Well, I would say you’re the best. All of you. I certainly have had such a wonderful career, wonderful memories, felt such a level of support over the years. You know, what’s really amazing too, and I don’t think I mentioned it, is watching the employee group come together when people have a need. You know, I remember, certainly the call center was expert at this, you know, somebody would have a health concern or a family concern and they would send around a sheet of paper, and suddenly, they had meals every night being delivered to their home. Those kind of gestures, which appear small, but are really big. And I remember, when I had some health concerns, and just hearing from employees and past employees, I mean it’s really a great culture. So I’m very thankful for being the recipient of those friendships and those opportunities, to be a part of their lives and their families’ lives and to see the growth and just, you know, really feel those relationships. And to know, here I am, 5 years out, and I still feel that same way. I think that’s pretty impressive.

Eric: Absolutely. Well, Jeannette, thank you so much. Sincerely thank you for joining me today. It’s been a pleasure. And I’ve enjoyed catching up with you.

Jeannette: Same with me, Eric, all the best.

Eric: Yep. Well, that brings us to the end of our show. You can always find more episodes by visiting mybank.com/podcast, or on your favorite podcast app. And we’re on basically all of them, so find us on your smartphone, or smart device, subscribe. And give us a five-star review, that helps other folks find the content that we’re creating.

You can also leave feedback, ask questions, or request the topic for us to discuss by sending an email to podcast@mybank.com.

Thanks again for listening. We’ll be back next week with more helpful content. But until then, we wish you the best in focusing on what matters most to you.

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