People - September 2005

She's first of her kind, not of her kin, to lead bankers
By Joe Rauch

The label is inevitable, but Hope Connell doesn’t like it much: first woman to chair the 108-year-old North Carolina Bankers Association, the trade group that represents the 142 banks, savings and trust institutions with headquarters in the state. What matters, she says, is that she won’t be the last one to hold the one-year job.

“It shows how attitudes in the banking industry are beginning to change. I think there are a dozen women in this state who would do an exceptional job in this post. I was just the one who happened to be picked.”

That groundbreaking choice was logical. Hope Holding Connell, 42, was born into one of North Carolina’s most prominent banking families. Grandfather Robert P. Holding started as an assistant cashier at Bank of Smithfield and became president and chairman. Today, the company is First Citizens BancShares, the fourth-largest banking conglomerate in the state and the parent of Raleigh-based First Citizens Bank.

First Citizens Bank has more than 340 branches in North Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia and $11.9 billion in assets. The parent company is publicly traded but is controlled by the family, with Holdings in three of the top four executive posts.

After graduating in 1985 from UNC Chapel Hill with degrees in English and economics, she joined First Citizens Bank’s management-training program. She got her MBA from Carolina in 1990 and has been executive vice president, supervising business banking, since 2000.

She is also active in civic and volunteer work, including stints on the steering committees of the 2001 and 2007 U.S. Women’s Open golf tournaments in Southern Pines — a dream assignment for Connell, who first played golf as a child. “I just fell in love with it.” She lost interest for a while but regained it after a few months at the bank. “I realized that either I could go play, and have to play well, against the guys or I could stay in the office answering the phones.”

Connell has worked with the bankers association since 2000, when she joined its executive committee. “The NCBA is a pooling of the state’s best and brightest minds to work with the General Assembly to ensure we’re going in the right direction with the banking industry and state regulation. I’ll just be steering a much larger ship that’s already on a solid course.”

She is the third generation of the Holding family to lead it, following her grandfather and her uncle, R.P. Holding Jr. Unlike that “first woman” tag, the idea of a dynasty doesn’t bother her. “I’d be flattered to think anyone would consider me carrying on some sort of family legacy and continuing the traditions and values previous generations have passed down to me. But it’s not something I lie awake at night and worry myself about.”