CEO, Cape Cod 5
Industry experience: 30 years
After 29 years at Cape Cod 5, Dorothy Savarese still gets chills when customers tell her on a personal level how the bank has affected their lives. Calling herself “privileged and grateful” for having the opportunity to lead the Hyannis-based bank, Savarese plans to step down next month as CEO, a position she has held since 2005, and then retire from her role as executive chair in 2023.
Savarese had spent 15 years working in economic development on a national level when she decided to stop traveling around the country after her son was born and work at a bank. She moved to Cape Cod and joined Cape Cod 5 in 1993 as a part-time commercial lender, later working in strategic planning and becoming the bank’s chief operating officer. Savarese is an advocate for women in banking, and she is board president of the Cape Cod Climate Change Collaborative.
Q: What are some challenges you faced as a female CEO in banking?
A: My challenges were very, very similar to what other [female] CEOs experienced. I did meet an older gentleman who said, “You don’t look like a CEO.” And I laughed thinking he was being funny. He was quite serious. He objected to the fact that I didn’t look like a CEO. It was difficult; I was usually the only woman in the room.
One of the things that I had become sensitive to, and had already been very sensitive to, is the amount of unconscious bias that existed – and sometimes conscious bias. Before I was CEO, I’d actually started working on advocating for diversity, equity and inclusion, because I had a wonderful mentor who said, “You’re upset about the lack of place that women have in this industry, why don’t you do something about it.”
So, I did a lot of research and discovered that more diverse management teams are more effective and have higher performing companies than less diverse ones. The good news is, over time, you found a lot of allies who supported that. You always did feel like you had to work twice as hard as the gentleman next to you in order to be taken seriously. I just felt that it was my job and my passion to help the whole industry understand that they had a huge opportunity by really encouraging and supporting women in the ranks of management and ultimately in the C-suite.
Q: What are some changes that you have seen for women?
A: The good news is people are not willing to be overtly discriminatory. The wonderful thing is that there’s been attention paid to unconscious bias and a desire and proactive effort to support diversity, equity and inclusion. When I was chair of Massachusetts Bankers Association, the last day of my term, we established our Women in Banking Conference. When I was chair of American Bankers Association, we established DE&I as a priority, and the ABA now has two senior management folks focused on DE&I.
We still have a long way to go at the C-suite and board level. Jane Fraser at Citi and others breaking that glass ceiling have made exciting progress. What’s been thrilling to me, as I’ve talked to younger women, is to actually hear how different their experiences are now, and that they can’t relate to the challenges that I had starting out, because the environment has shifted and is much more supportive. And that makes me feel so good.
Q: Are there one or two experiences during your tenure as CEO of Cape Cod 5 that stand out for you?
A: It all does. This has been the most amazing journey of my life, and I’ve just felt so privileged at every step of the way to be the steward of this 167-year-old institution. But if I had to pick two, the first was when I was sworn in as CEO. It was in the middle of a blizzard and an ice storm, and we weren’t even sure we were going to have a meeting. But standing up and getting sworn in and realizing that I had the opportunity to work with our board and our corporators and our management team and employees to evolve this wonderful community organization to continue to grow and have an impact on the communities we serve was just such a humbling experience – and such a thrill.
Then in 2019, we cut the ribbon on our new headquarters – we call it HQ5 – and we had a big party for all of our employees. I stood in the lobby as my two co-presidents and I were addressing the folks there. We were surrounded by employees in the lobby and up on the balcony looking over it, and I realized just what we had created in terms of such a special culture and organization. Those were two nice bookends for me, knowing that the future of the organization was in great hands.
Q: What are some keys for Cape Cod 5 to survive as a mutual bank?
A: We take that mutuality very seriously. We feel like it absolutely imbues our mission of enriching lives. As you know, though, capital is really important to mutual banks, and earnings are essential to maintaining capital levels. Mutual banks have to operate in a way that provides nimbleness and financial strength to support that. Balance sheet management is also key, and so for us, we have a very robust mortgage banking operation.
We think the magic is what we call our “one bank” approach, which is that we all work collaboratively together to serve the customers. We have this talented, dedicated employee core and management team. And we’ve got this culture of collaboration and service – and innovation. I actually ask the board every couple of years to vote to reinforce and reassert our commitment to our mutuality.
Q: Do you have plans for when you retire?
A: I still have another year to think that through. I’m involved in a lot of community activities, and of course, those will continue. But the great thing about this coming year is it gives me an opportunity to think through how I can continue to serve, just in a different format and a different way.