When the financial crisis unfolded in 2007, Melissa Ballenger’s accounting team filed accurate and compliant reports with the Securities and Exchange Commission even while the bank she worked for was on the verge of collapse.
“The bank was in crisis and didn’t survive,” Ballenger said last week in a CFO Thought Leader podcast. “But I’m proud of how our finance function operated. We got through all SEC reviews without restatements.”
As the bank’s controller and chief accountant, she had to make a lot of big decisions quickly — a skill she has honed over a 30-year finance career that’s taken her to some of the largest financial institutions in the United States.
“I was fire-tested,” said Ballenger, today CFO of Mosaic, a consumer home energy efficiency lender. “The bank had to shut down several businesses, write off goodwill, lay off people and raise several rounds of capital. So, there was an intensive need to make decisions with a high sense of urgency but also of high quality.”
Her approach was to gather expertise around her, make the decision and then move on.
“I learned to get input from all the relevant people — valuation experts, auditors, credit professionals,” she said. “I feel like that prepared me well for a role not only in companies in trouble, but in high-growth, innovative companies.”
Her role in a bank that didn’t survive the financial crisis gave her insight when she joined TD Bank two years later as its deputy CFO, a new role that gave her a platform to help the Canadian bank integrate two large U.S. banks it had just acquired.
“The management team had an interesting mix of people,” she said, “from the parent company in Canada, from legacy organizations and with several executives brought in from the industry who had been displaced in the crisis. So, I resolved to listen, talk to all the finance leaders, the executive committee in the U.S., to understand what their business needs were. Sounds pretty basic, but I could not have started otherwise, because I needed to know what the business needs were and they were each unique.”
Her response was to put in place new business unit CFOs who reported to her but partnered with business leaders and made improvements in the bank’s financial planning and analysis (FP&A) team and capabilities.
“We’re part of a public company, so our forecasting and communications to the parent were critically important,” she said.
The improvements helped the bank leverage opportunities to grow market share in the U.S. while other banks were still struggling to right themselves after the crisis.
“The bank was there to play,” she said. “A lot of competitor banks in the U.S. were still back on their heels, had creditor concerns and capital considerations. TD had the opportunity to take share profitably from competitors because of its excellent capital position and risk management.”
At Mosaic, which she joined last year, her job is to help the 10-year-old company move into a more mature growth stage after pioneering what has grown into a competitive market for consumer loans, mainly for solar panels and energy-efficient windows, doors and HVAC systems.
The company’s competitive advantage, Ballenger believes, is its data analytics capabilities. As one of the original lenders in its space, it has amassed a loan performance database that has enabled it to refine its underwriting criteria over time.
“We don’t feel our competitors have comparable data sets,” she said. “We have the data to keep informing our underwriting, creating quality loan assets. The capital markets have recognized the value of this asset class and our high credit quality. All of this has allowed us to lower our cost of funds so we can provide some of the most attractive rates in the industry and keep up with rising demand.”
The company’s focus on data has been part of its operational strategy from day one, so when she came on board, getting a data analytics capability in place wasn’t necessary.
“It’s a living, breathing part of how the management team runs the organization, with dashboarding, reporting on trends, discussing it continuously,” she said. “It’s contributed a lot to the company’s success.”
Although the company — relatively young and private-equity backed — is a marked contrast to the large banking institutions she spent much of her career at, it promises to expose her to the kind of new learnings that she says she thrives on.
“When I feel I’m outside my comfort zone, I know I’m learning the most,” she said. “From early on in my career, if I push through [unfamiliar situations], I’ve made myself better and advanced my career and capabilities. Where I took risks, that’s where my career advanced. Now I’m transitioning from large global financial companies to help this wonderful company.”