High rate of return: Lisa Marie Cathie of Ulster Savings Bank
Photograph by Michael Polito
When she graduated from high school, “it wasn’t even on my radar to become a banker,” recalls Lisa Marie Cathie, who today is the president and CEO of Ulster Savings Bank.
Born and raised in the Valley, and fresh out of high school, Cathie took a part-time teller position and simultaneously juggled other jobs — including gigs as a hotel receptionist and in an auto body shop office — while attending Dutchess Community College full-time.
“Those jobs weren’t glamorous, but I never underestimated the skills I learned — the multitasking, providing service with excellence,” she says.
By age 22, Cathie had moved from teller to eventually become branch manager at the Poughkeepsie Savings Bank. She later held executive positions at the Bank of New York, M&T Bank, and Hudson United Bank; prior to joining Ulster Savings, she was chief operating officer of Orange County Trust Company.
“I’ve worked in just about every department of a bank,” she notes. “I kept learning and transferring to other areas so I could get more experience.”
But it wasn’t all smooth sailing. At one point in her career, Cathie recalls, she applied for a more senior banking spot. “My boss told me I was perfect for the position, but that I was also ‘unqualified’ because I didn’t have my bachelor’s degree.”
Undaunted, Cathie enrolled in Marist College at age 35; at the time, she was married, had a full-time job, and a four-year-old daughter and five-year-old son. She earned a B.S. in organizational leadership and communication; she also studied at the Stonier Graduate School of Banking at the University of Pennsylvania and completed the Strategic IQ Program at Harvard Business School.
After years in the financial field, Cathie decided to make a career shift. She created a consulting firm, Optimum Performance, Inc., merging her banking know-how and passion for organizational development. The business served community banks and service-related firms nationwide “by helping them perform to their fullest and bring out the best in their people, for a better employee/customer experience,” Cathie says.
She also became an adjunct professor at Orange County Community College, teaching leadership skills and performance management, and sharing her knowledge in a coaching capacity, “primarily for adult students and employees of banks,” she notes.
In 2008, Cathie returned to hands-on banking after being offered the chief operating officer spot at Orange County Trust. Then in 2011, she was appointed president and CEO of Ulster Savings, where she’s in charge of about 320 employees in 15 branches in Ulster, Dutchess, Greene, and Orange counties (the Orange branch just opened last month), plus mortgage offices in Orange, Westchester, and Suffolk counties.
Cathie, 48, lives with her family in Highland and is active in community service: She’s involved in no less than five organizations, and sits on the boards at the Bardavon/UPAC and Hudson Valley Pattern for Progress. This year, she received Marist College’s Distinguished Alumna Medal of Honor.
When other women seek career advice, Cathie says, they sometimes ask her if it’s tough for a female to rise to the top in banking. “On occasion, I’ve been greatly outnumbered, and still am, at conferences,” she laughs. “So banking is still male-dominated in regard to top-level positions. But I’ve been welcomed by male colleagues, and they seem to appreciate the different experience and perspective I can bring to the table.”
She advises women: “To stay relevant in your job, go beyond just knowing your topic, and let challenges become opportunities; think big.” She also suggests creating a career progression plan. “That’s your vision for yourself and how you’ll achieve those goals. Also, do a self-assessment; take time to figure out what your real desires and dreams are. Sometimes we realize that what we really want to do isn’t what we thought it would be.”
Another pointer: “Finding good mentors is something we should always continue to do.” And Cathie stresses that younger employees can learn a lot from older people in their field. “They have the experience in terms of coaching and teaching life lessons — things we don’t necessarily learn from textbooks, which might just give us the edge in a competitive situation. What to do, what not to do — that’s important.”
Creating your personal sphere of influence is helpful, too, she says. “A focused, effective networking plan is very important. Who is out there that you can count on? You can help them, and they can help you.”
The bottom line, she says, is “all about staying challenged and creating a positive workplace experience. And,” she adds, “keep your sense of humor!”
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