In the late 1970s, Rita Lowman’s hometown newspaper ran a story on her – a rising star, brimming with optimism, coming up with motivational programs at the local bank. Headlined At 25, She’s Young For Job But Has Confidence to Share, the story asked Lowman what she saw herself doing it 20 years?
Lowman sighs when she thinks back on her first real brush with fame, up in Columbus, western Georgia, cow country. “I said ‘I see myself being a senior vice president of a large commercial bank.’ At that time, I could not envision that I could be president of a bank. But as I continued to grow in my career, I realized I had the same qualifications and abilities, and energy level, that anyone in banking had. Therefore, I had an opportunity.”
Forty years later, she is the president of Tampa-based Pilot Bank. They say the journey is more important, ultimately, than the destination, and Lowman’s journey has been a series of one peak after another: After she relocated to Florida in 1983, she served in executive capacities at Bank of America, Republic Bank, Regions Bank, American Momentum Bank and C1 Bank. She was at the forefront of many of the mergers and acquisitions that created these financial institutions. She has never been passive about anything.
Lowman was 2017 chair of the Florida Bankers Association, and currently sits on the board. Today, she is one of the most successful and prominent women in the state’s banking industry.
Funny thing. “I didn’t necessarily look at the bank as a long-lasting career,” she says of those early days in Columbus. “I had gone in because they needed a marketing person. I was doing PR and marketing. It was a job. And then after a couple of years I became the youngest bank officer that had ever been promoted, and I realized it was a true career.”
In 2016, she published a memoir, equal parts business acumen and personal philosophy, From the Farm to the Boardroom: Leadership Lessons.
She and her husband Gary – they were high school sweethearts – divide their time between Tampa Bay and their 200-acre farm outside Columbus (Gary, a retired Kraft Foods executive, heads up there every six weeks or so, while Rita tries to make the journey once every quarter).
They grow the hay on site for their 80 head of Black Angus beef cattle. “It’s really relaxing,” Lowman says. “I can get on my four-wheel drive, or I can actually get on the Kubota tractor and help out. Although Gary won’t say that I’m necessarily helping, that I pretend like I am.”
Gary Jr. is an attorney at the American consulate in Rio de Janeiro; his younger brother Clint works in a West Palm Beach drug clinic. In From the Farm to the Boardroom, Lowman praises her family for moving – umpteen times – as her career took her to one southern state, and then one Florida city, after another.
All these years later, however, she’s still brimming with optimism. She still has Confidence to Share.
“Education is so important,” Lowman explains. “I continue to go to conferences and classes, and things along those lines, to continue to learn about my industry. I think that’s very important for any person, to always want to learn.”
You’re a pioneer. How has the landscape changed for women bankers over the past couple of years? Or has it?
RL: There are only a handful of woman bank presidents in the State of Florida. Baking is still male-dominated. I was the third woman in 130 years to serve as chair as the Florida Bankers Association. I did not take on the responsibility because I was a woman – I took on the responsibility because I believe in the industry. However, I still felt like it spoke volumes in the fact that out of 130 years, I was only the third woman. You know, diversity around the board table is very important. Women bring a little bit of a different perspective oftentimes than having all males around the table.
But is it still an uphill climb? Is there still that ‘women can’t do this’ attitude?
RL: I don’t think it’s so much that women can’t do it, I think it still goes back to the fact that women do not ask and say ‘I want that next opportunity.’ Or ‘I have this idea that I would like you to consider.’ You may sit around a board table and ideas are flowing, and you need to put your idea out there, whether you be male, female, whatever.
I think women are speaking out much more than they have in the past, and everybody brings something to the table. Diversity is so important. In my Emerging Leaders teams, I have had a lot of young men AND young women over the years. I want the people that add the most value. I don’t want you to ever underestimate the value of what you can bring to the table.
You talk in your book about community involvement being important to the banking industry. “Baking is ultimately about people.” Why is it, and how are you enacting this philosophy today with Pilot Bank?
RL: We want to give back so our communities can grow. To be part of a bank, you can’t always be asking, you have to be sharing and giving. And that’s been my philosophy for my 40-plus years in banking. When we came in, Pilot Bank was not as well-known as we thought it should be known. So people didn’t know what we could offer and what we could do. But now, we’ve become involved in many, many different organizations, and in different things going on in the community. They know who we are, and there’s a mutual respect, and trust. They know that we’re honest, and the integrity component of it’s very important. I believe every bank, whether you’re small or large, needs to be a part of the community.
People will get to know a bank, but it’s the people within that bank that make the difference. Therefore, the level of what the management team is delivering to the associates has to be the same. It has to show that excitement and enthusiasm, so that can be displayed. My number one goal has always been to be the employer of choice. And if I’m the employer of choice, then I’m going to be the bank of choice for our clients. Because our associates are going to feel so good about coming in to work each day, and giving back to our clients and our community, the clients and the community are going to want to bank with you.
You had some significant mentors and advisors when you were coming up. What’s the biggest takeaway from that – why is mentorship so valuable?
RL: Many times, an idea or an opportunity will come across and you need to say to someone else ‘Does this make sense?’ ‘Is it the right thing for me as an individual, for the bank to be doing?’ And to hear perspective from outside your organization oftentimes helps you with that growth, and that decision-making process.
I have two mentors who’ve been friends of mine for years, but I still depend on them quite frequently: Alex Sink and Bill Klick.
What’s next for you? Is there still room for growth?
RL: There is, absolutely, and if anybody says there’s not, then they stop their life. I’m looking forward to continuing to work and grow Pilot Bank; we’ve been able to bring in some top talent, so that’s an exciting chapter. And I’ll be writing a second book when I retire, more on a personal level. And I want to continue with my philanthropic work in the community – I’ll continue to do that both on a personal basis and of course through the bank.