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Mandy Norton: Taking a risk to inspire

A sense of adventure brought Mandy Norton from the United Kingdom to the U.S., and eventually to Wells Fargo as its chief risk officer. The mathematician-turned-banker sees opportunity and hope in leading the risk management effort.

October 2, 2018

In the freezing waters off the coast of South Africa, Mandy Norton climbed into a steel cage as great white sharks swam nearby. Moments later, the cage lowered and she entered their world.

“It was exhilarating,” recalled Norton, a wildlife enthusiast, lover of adventure, and the chief risk officer of Wells Fargo. “I’ve always had a fascination with sharks, so to swim or dive with them was what I’d guess you would call one of my bucket list items.”

However, even there, nearly 8,000 miles from home, amid some of nature’s most wondrous — and dangerous — creatures, risk management still came into play, she said. Norton had done the risk-reward calculus, studied shark behavior, researched the tour’s safety record, assessed her potential exposure, and conducted other due diligence.

“I suppose some would think there’s a dichotomy between my outside life and my professional life,” said Norton, 50. “I actually think they dovetail very nicely. I’ve been told I’m a risk-taker, but I think I’m probably the best type of personality to be a good risk manager because I have some understanding of what it means to take risks and how to best manage them.”

In deep blue waters, a shark is shown swimming from right to left.
A shark swims in the waters off of South Africa during Mandy Norton's cage diving adventure in 2016.
Photo Credit: Mandy Norton

Norton brought that fearless perspective and energy with her to Wells Fargo in June, when she became the first female chief risk officer for a major U.S. bank. Her arrival comes at a crucial time as the bank works through a sweeping inventory to find and fix problems, do what’s right for customers, and build a better bank for the future.

Norton is tasked with taking Wells Fargo’s risk management program to the next level and proving its excellence to a watching world — including customers, team members, shareholders, regulators, industry analysts, and the general public. Demonstrating an industry-leading risk management framework is among the primary six goals of Wells Fargo set forth after Tim Sloan assumed the role of CEO in October 2016.

Norton is quick to acknowledge Wells Fargo had already made substantial progress in improving its risk controls when she came aboard. She noted important changes, including the centralization of company functions such as technology and human resources, establishment of a centralized and independent risk management function, elimination of retail sales goals and sales-based incentives, and placement of new leaders in key positions.

“There’s been a terrific amount of work that’s already been done before I got here, in terms of getting everyone working toward the same goal in our risk management program,” Norton said. “What I am trying to do is leverage this work to build out a fully integrated and holistic risk management framework that provides clear direction, clarity for roles and responsibilities, and a structured and disciplined governance infrastructure — which essentially provides the road map for all team members to use while managing risk in their daily activities. The ultimate goal is to contribute to the delivery of the best possible service and experience for our customers.”

From mathematician to banker

Norton’s career path to the banking profession may seem like an improbable one. Born, raised, and educated in the United Kingdom, her father was an aeronautical engineer who taught her discipline, loyalty, and love of the sciences; her mother is a retired nurse “who taught me compassion, the importance of balance, and how to have fun,” she said.

Norton studied and excelled in mathematics at the University of Bath, one of Britain’s top universities, and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1989. Years later, she established a University of Bath scholarship bearing her name that is awarded each year to a top female mathematics student from a low- or moderate-income family.

"The ultimate goal is to contribute to the delivery of the best possible service and experience for our customers."

— Mandy Norton

“I feel passionately about the opportunities I enjoyed at the University,” she said. “Giving back is my way of ensuring that current Bath students can have the same opportunities I had.”

So how did she transform from a mathematician into a banker? The first step came when she attended some recruiting presentations by banks and other companies looking to hire new graduates.

“I was struck with the idea of how I could use the discipline of mathematics and apply it to financial services,” she said. “I’m also a person who very much wears her heart on her sleeve. I love working with people, love learning from people. So in the financial services industry, you get to hone your softer skills in areas such as thought leadership, reasoning, influencing, and helping people. I found it a natural progression from mathematics to banking.”

Coming to America

Nearly 30 years later, Norton’s career has taken her from the U.K. across the Atlantic Ocean to America, with stints at Bank of America and Ally Financial, before joining JPMorgan Chase, where she held positions as its chief risk officer in mortgage banking and consumer and community banking.

Norton’s personal energy, in-depth senior management experience in risk management at large financial institutions, and singular commitment to customers made her an ideal choice for Wells Fargo, said CEO Tim Sloan.

“Whenever we look at adding leaders to the Wells Fargo team, we look first for a great fit — with our company and with our culture — and then how well that person will advance our business,” he said. “Mandy was a natural on both fronts.

“To be thought of as an inspiration by friends and colleagues is just extraordinarily flattering.”

— Mandy Norton

“She is very focused on serving customers in the most risk-appropriate way, which supports our vision to help them succeed financially,” Sloan added. “And you only need to talk with her for a few minutes to see that she is also a great match with our values: the highest ethical standards and a laser focus on customers, just to name two.”

When she was offered the job at Wells Fargo, Norton said there was no hesitation. In the company’s regulatory issues, she saw an opportunity to rise to the challenge, not a cause for concern, she said.

“Wells Fargo is a great company. I was flattered to be considered for the job,” Norton said. “Quite honestly, just about every large institution and many others have faced somewhat similar challenges, from a regulatory perspective or otherwise. So for me, I just felt like it was a great opportunity that I could potentially come and be helpful, having been through a cycle like that with other companies.”

One huge benefit of moving to the U.S. was meeting Kathy, now her life partner of 15 years, whom she describes as her “biggest supporter, my biggest advocate.

“She’s there for me on bad days, and she’s there for me when I come home excited about something that I’m really proud of,” Norton said. “I categorically know that I wouldn’t be who I am today, professionally or personally, without her support. And the successes I’ve enjoyed are in a very large part due to her. I couldn’t have a better partner in life.”

A ‘risk officer’s risk officer’

Wells Fargo’s selection of Norton was an impressive and impactful one, especially given what’s at stake for the company as it seeks to meet the regulators’ requirements and lift the asset growth cap, said Duke Bristow, an economist at the University of Southern California and one of the top corporate governance influencers in the U.S., according to the National Association of Corporate Directors.

“It is extremely important for Wells Fargo to have picked someone like Mandy Norton,” he said. “Those who will critique its action will have a difficult time not thinking of Mandy as a risk officer’s risk officer. She is that deep and experienced in risk management. I think if you would call central casting and ask them to send you someone for the risk officer’s role, Mandy would be the one who’d show up.”

“I was struck with the idea of how I could use the discipline of mathematics and apply it to financial services.” 

— Mandy Norton

Former banker Stanley Smith, a banking professor emeritus at the University of Central Florida, said Norton’s credibility in the industry can be a boost to Wells Fargo’s own reputational repair.

“To the extent a bank’s reputation has suffered, then it is important to convince its customers and regulators that they have a plan to solve the problems and prevent future problems,” he said. “Hiring someone with an excellent reputation in risk management should help the bank’s efforts.”

Norton’s status as an outsider will also be a plus for her, Bristow said. “If this had been an internal promotion, I think it would have been difficult to say that she was coming to the job with a fresh set of eyes,” he said. “This way, I think people will give her the benefit of the doubt.”

Her toughest challenge, Bristow added, will be to think outside the box of traditional risk management, focusing not just on immediate risk or the “unknowns that are known,” but also on the “unknown unknowns” — a phrase used in 2002 by then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld about the Iraq War.

“Basically, a risk officer is often faced with the impossible job of foreseeing the unforeseeable,” he said.

Inspiring others, solving Rubik’s Cubes

Jane Vennik first heard the laughter of Mandy Norton when they were in high school in the U.K. It was an infectious, enthusiastic laugh “that you could always hear in the common room, and I thought she must be a fun person to know.” Decades later, they’ve been lifelong friends, said Vennik, a medical researcher at the University of Southampton.

“It was clear from early times that Mandy was destined for great things,” she said. “Her intelligence, leadership, determination, and personality shone through at an early age, which meant we always knew she would do well! I think she would have succeeded in whatever career she chose.”

More than 10 years after Vennik and Norton’s friendship began, Steve Merritt of Charlotte, North Carolina, said he recalls the same infectious laughter when he met Norton in Charlotte.

“Nobody smiles or laughs more, nobody is so genuine,” said the longtime friend and banking colleague. “She is one of those people who is just happy. You can’t go to a meeting and not have her laugh at something. She keeps things light and is fun to be around. Once you get to know her, you realize there’s nobody with a stronger character, nobody more trustworthy, nobody who has a better moral compass. She’s an inspiration in every way.”

One quirky inspiration, Merritt said, is Norton’s ability to solve the Rubik’s Cube in less than a minute, an apparent byproduct of her math skills. “She could do that faster than anyone I’ve ever seen,” he said. “They could put me in a dungeon and tell me I can’t come out until I solve it. And I would die in the dungeon.”

Norton reacts with characteristic modesty at the suggestion of being an inspiration to others. For her, the most inspirational role models are women who have courageously pushed boundaries, been trailblazers, or taken on roles not traditionally held by women — activists such as Emmeline Pankhurst and Rosa Parks, sports figures such as Martina Navratilova and Billie Jean King, and political figures such as Condoleezza Rice.

“To be thought of as an inspiration by friends and colleagues is just extraordinarily flattering,” she said. “But it is a two-way street when you are fortunate enough to have built strong, meaningful relationships. I would say the same of many of my close friends and colleagues. It is humbling to know they feel I’ve made some difference in their life, but I know they’ve probably made a much bigger difference in mine.”

Contributors: Paul Barrie, Kathleen Llewellyn and Emily Best
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