Always Learning: In Life's Classroom, Betsy Duke Quickly Discovered That Finance, Not Fine Arts, Was Her Real Major. Now, This Ardent Believer in Banking Is about to Step Up to the Industry's Highest Podium. Meet the First Woman to Hold ABA's Top Elected Office

ABA Banking Journal, October 2004 | Go to article overview

Always Learning: In Life's Classroom, Betsy Duke Quickly Discovered That Finance, Not Fine Arts, Was Her Real Major. Now, This Ardent Believer in Banking Is about to Step Up to the Industry's Highest Podium. Meet the First Woman to Hold ABA's Top Elected Office


Betsy Duke's been hooked on a computer game for 25 years. Not Ms. Pac Man. Not Flight Simulator. Not Super Mario Bros. Duke's game is BankSim.

Once she got a taste of running a bank on ABA's computer simulation program, everything fell into place. In 1979, when she had been a full-time banker for all of three years, Duke attended the ABA Bank Investments School, where she and her fellow "CEOs" made rate, loan, and investment decisions for four simulated quarters on the BankSim program, hoping to prosper and not "crash and burn."

It was an epiphany. Well, maybe not exactly a religious experience, but definitely a turning point in her life.

"Some people like playing chess, I like playing banking," says Elizabeth A. "Betsy" Duke, executive vice-president of SouthTrust Corp., and now chairman of the American Bankers Association for the next 12 months. "If there had been a home version of BankSim, I'd have bought it and played it over and over again," says Duke.

The practice paid off. By the age of 35, Duke was named president of Bank of Tidewater, Virginia Beach, Va., after just 12 years in the business.

Duke still uses simulation as a teaching tool, and says that even after 28 years in the business, including 11 years as CEO of Bank of Tidewater before it was acquired by SouthTrust Corp., she still learns something every time she uses the program.

"I vant to be an actress"

"All my life I've been a student of banking," says Duke. Actually, there was one brief distraction along the way.

Betsy Duke's father, Lee, was a commercial contractor, working in the Hampton Roads area of southeastern Virginia, which includes Norfolk, Portsmouth, Virginia Beach, and Newport News. He was also a director of a local bank, as was his father before him.

Lee Duke was hoping for a son who could follow him into the contracting business. After a third daughter was born, however, he concluded that his firstborn, six-year-old Betsy, would have to become the state's first woman contractor. He promptly gave her a contractor's pad and pencil and said, "Start at 100, add two, subtract three, until you get to zero," as an exercise in basic math. And she did. Dad didn't realize it (nor did his daughter until years later) but he had unwittingly watered the seeds of a budding banker.

The seeds didn't germinate right away, however. Duke attended North Carolina State University as a physics major, then moved over to the University of North Carolina, and switched her major to drama. She had decided to become an actress, much to her father's distress.

After graduating in 1974, she moved back to Virginia Beach, where she had grown up, found an acting job in a dinner theater, and waited tables on weekends. Not exactly instant stardom.

Her dad thought she should at least have a real day job while doing the theater thing, she says. Her first stop was a local dry cleaner who turned her down (no experience!). Choice number two was a bank, where she found a job as a part-time drive-up teller.

The show ended after about a year, but by then Duke had reached a couple of conclusions: one, she would never be a great actress, and two, she enjoyed the teller job. "It just appealed to me," she says, "because at the end of the day you balanced out all your numbers, and came back fresh the next day." A little later she landed a new-accounts job at Bank of Virginia Beach, where she met two other people who would have a big influence on her life--Burt Harrison, president, and a young operations officer named Larry Harcum.

Just exactly who is the boss?

There were only ten employees at the start-up bank, so Duke quickly learned a lot about banking. Harrison was as much mentor as CEO and Duke absorbed it all.

"Burt just loved the business and liked to share his enthusiasm," says Duke. "He used to go through the income statement in detail every week with the employees--tellers and all. …

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Always Learning: In Life's Classroom, Betsy Duke Quickly Discovered That Finance, Not Fine Arts, Was Her Real Major. Now, This Ardent Believer in Banking Is about to Step Up to the Industry's Highest Podium. Meet the First Woman to Hold ABA's Top Elected Office
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