Pam Howe has taken an unusual route to leadership in the banking world.
Pam Howe hasn’t always taken the conventional road, but as executive vice president of Commerce Bank in Peoria, that may be one of the secrets to her success.
A native Peorian, Howe grew up as Pam Casper. She was valedictorian of her graduating classes at Bergan High School (1979, now Notre Dame) and Bradley University’s Foster College of Business (1983).
“I credit those accomplishments to the early childhood education my older brother (Don) provided,” she said. “He had me reading and solving simple arithmetic before I entered kindergarten.”
Growing up, Howe‘s maternal grandmother lived with her family. “She was an excellent role model of a nurturing family matriarch,” she explained. “From her I learned to cook, garden, sew, quilt and how to behave in church. Her presence allowed my mother to pursue a career outside the home.
“From Mom (Delores), I learned professional presence, the importance of customer service, and the value of financial independence.”
Howe’s interest in banking was piqued at an early age.
“My dad (Ken) was my first hero and role model,” she said. “I was a ‘daddy’s girl,’ so it was always a thrill to me to go to his office and observe him ‘putting out fires’ with aplomb and ease. Since he was a successful banker, I wanted to be a banker, too. To this day, he is still one of my mentors.”
Paving the Way
Most of Howe’s career has been on the lending side, but her foray into the banking world was a bit unconventional. After spending two years in collections and foreclosures for another institution, she was hired as a collection and repossession specialist for First National Bank of Peoria, now Commerce Bank.
“At the time, this was a very uncommon position for a woman at any Midwest bank,” she said. “Bank leadership in the mid-1980s struggled with hiring a woman in the role of a hard-nosed debt collector.”
Howe then moved on to become the bank’s first female consumer loan officer, followed by a position as a residential mortgage loan officer. One of the most pivotal points in her career, though, was becoming the first female commercial lending officer in Commerce’s Illinois market.
“Commerce provided mortgage loans through its subsidiary, Commerce Mortgage Company. My colleague and I were given the option to join the mortgage company, but we preferred to stay with the bank, and there was one open position for a private banking officer and one for a commercial lending officer,” said Howe.
“My colleague, the senior mortgage lender, chose the private banking gig. I jumped way out of my comfort zone to claim the commercial lending position, making me the first and only female in that role in Commerce’s Illinois market at that time.”
After the bottom fell out of the real estate market in 2008, Howe needed to pivot. She chose to pursue another specialty in municipal and government banking, creating opportunities for her to collaborate with Commerce bankers in other cities. Shortly thereafter, she was promoted to senior lender, and earlier this year, she was named commercial team lead for the Peoria market.
“Pam has entered into a few roles that not many, or any, women ever held during her time at Commerce/First National Bank,” said James Weekley, Commerce’s vice president of commercial banking. “Her approach to business is to use her intelligence to become an expert on whatever subject is presented so that she can be a resource both internally and externally. She serves as a fantastic role model to women and men alike who wish to be successful. She remains humble despite her success and serves as one of the bank’s strongest leaders year in and year out.”
Howe credits her longevity at Commerce to the people and the culture.
“My coworkers have become my best friends, my tutors, my counselors and my cheerleaders,” she said. “These relationships are grounded in the common values and guiding behaviors that are the foundation of the Commerce culture. We support, advocate for, and celebrate each other.”
“Pam is a pure professional who has focused not only on building relationships with those internally here at Commerce, but dedicating her time and leadership to her community,” said William Phillips, president of Commerce Bank in Bloomington/Normal.
“Many of us can trace back the opportunities that we have seen in our careers back to the conversations and guidance she has provided us over the years.”
Mentorship has played an important role in Howe’s career.
“My mentors have gently pushed me to step outside of my comfort zone and into the growth and learning zone. They have helped build my confidence, improve my interpersonal communications, and strengthen my decision-making.
“The financial industry has long suffered from a negative reputation of being very difficult for women to advance to senior levels and thrive,” Howe went on to explain. “I am excited and inspired by the increasing number of women rising to leadership roles in the industry during my tenure. However, much like the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) industries, more women still need to be recruited into finance before we will see them in senior seats. It is still a work in progress.”
‘more women still need to be recruited into finance.’— Pam Howe
That’s one of the reasons she became the founding co-chair of the Illinois chapter of RISE, the Commerce employee resource group for women.
“The name is an acronym for the group’s commitment to female employees—Respect, Inspire, Succeed, Empower,” said Howe. “Serving in this role to help other women at Commerce claim their seats at the table has been very gratifying.”
“Pam is always willing to lend an ear and provide sage advice,” said James. “In addition to our direct interactions, Pam’s shadow has been very impactful for me as well as others. She leads by example. With her impressive background and knowledge, she’s able to provide coaching with an empathetic approach that helps to build confidence among the team.”
In addition to RISE, Howe’s community involvement reflects her own changing roles and experiences throughout her life.
When she was a personal lender, she served on the board of Consumer Credit Counseling Services educating people about credit. Once she became a mortgage lender, affordable housing resonated with her, and she accepted a seat on the East Bluff Neighborhood Housing Services board.
As a mother of daughters, she served on the board of the Kickapoo Council of Girl Scouts and in a Junior Achievement classroom. And her observation of housing challenges faced by aging relatives compelled her to join the board of Rebuilding Together Peoria. Her current commitment to the board of Methodist College arose from the compassionate care her husband received during his cancer journey. She also recently joined the Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors.
Aside from the satisfaction of helping neighbors in need, community involvement has presented tremendous avenues for personal and professional development.
“I have practiced and refined confidence, collaboration, public speaking, time management, leadership and other transferable skills through my community involvement activities,” she said. “The networking and relationships derived from community activity can even lead to business or career growth opportunities.”
Outside of work, Howe, 60, enjoys spending time with her husband, Rich, two daughters, Regina and Lexi, and their husbands.
She is also a voracious reader, enjoys yoga, golfing and traveling. She continues to mentor and encourage women to identify their core values and allow those to drive them. “My core values are benevolence, achievement and integrity,” she said, “and I have created a value mantra to keep them in focus: Do good, do well, and do right.”
Meanwhile, Howe has come to realize that feedback is a gift that she should regularly seek and accept. “Never squander the learning opportunities that arise from mistakes,” she said. “Respect the lesson and focus on how to pivot and move forward.”
Finally, Howe emphasizes the importance of realizing that the journey is so much more rewarding than the destination.
“To quote one of my favorite poets, Robert Frost, ‘Don’t be afraid to choose the road less traveled.”