Mary Roebling: the first lady of finance

Published: Mar 2015

Although Mary Roebling may be one of the lesser known financiers of her generation, her achievements are by no means small. From humble beginnings, Roebling went on to have a career at the top of US finance. Achieving a number of firsts for women in the industry, Roebling championed workplace equality at a time when it wasn’t chic to do so.

Two pairs of feet standing in highheels

“So many women have deposits in banks, so many women are interested in retail and wholesale business. It is only natural that women are being elevated to positions of an executive nature,” said Mary Roebling on her first day as President of major American Bank, the Trenton Trust Company. At the time, Roebling was one of the most high profile executives in the country and her career is an inspiration to women in business.

Early life

Born Mary Gindhart in July 1905, Roebling was the eldest of four children in a suburban New Jersey family. Her father, Isaac Dare Gindhart, Jr., was President of a local telephone company and her mother, also Mary, was a talented pianist and vocalist. During her formative years, Roebling was a keen learner, described as hard working and enthusiastic by her teachers at the local school she attended, Moorestown High School.

Romance interrupted her studies, however, and the young Roebling never finished high school. At the age of 16, she left education to marry Arthur Herbert, a World War One veteran and nephew of the American conductor and composer, Victor Herbert. Roebling’s late teens and twenties did not follow the fairy tale she expected though, as two years after the birth of their first child, her husband Arthur died of blood poisoning, a result of experiencing a gas attack during the war.

Following Arthur’s death, Roebling’s father urged her to resume her studies. Despite the ban on women attending daytime classes at the local business school, she took his advice and began attending night classes, studying business administration and merchandising. A second marriage, that lasted only a few years, did not prevent her studies this time and Roebling was able to join a brokerage firm in Philadelphia, first as a secretary and then as a consultant.

It was at the brokerage firm that Roebling met her third husband, Siegfried Roebling, Vice President of the Trenton Trust Bank and grandson of Brooklyn Bridge builder, Washington Roebling. Marrying in 1933, she fully immersed herself in this world of high finance: working long hours at the bank, studying at home, and frequenting the social scene with her high-flying husband. Two years into their marriage, Roebling gave birth to her second child, Paul.

Shortly after Paul was born, tragedy struck again as Siegfried died of a stroke in January 1936, aged just 45. His sudden death left Roebling a widow for the second time, a single mother of two, and on the verge of making the biggest decision of her life.

Stepping into big shoes

Roebling inherited her late husband’s estate including a large amount of stock in Trenton Trust. In a very strong position at the bank, Roebling was fast-tracked to the top – she and her father swiftly became directors at Trenton Trust and, a year later, Roebling was appointed president. The merit of this appointment is debated by historians – with some suggesting that Roebling took advantage of the strong position she gained from her husband’s stock and staged a coup. Others note that she was held in high regard by members of the board for both her business mind and work ethic. For Roebling, the decision was quite simple: “it was the depths of the recession and a necessity,” she later said.

So many women have deposits in banks, so many women are interested in retail and wholesale business. It is only natural that women are being elevated to positions of an executive nature.

Mary Roebling

Whatever the catalysts were for the appointment, the outcome was that the 33 year-old Mary Roebling was now the first female president of a major American commercial bank and one of the most powerful individuals in the city. But 1936 was not exactly an ideal time to be in such a position: the Great Depression had firmly taken hold, causing economic misery to millions in both the US and abroad. Trenton Trust was by no means exempt from the effects of this and, despite holding assets of $11m, the bank also had debts of $4m. Roebling later remarked that, at the time, “everybody was busted, and the bank was busted too.”

Undeterred by this challenge, Roebling made the decision to make her job her life. Her teenage daughter and young son were cared for by others whilst she worked all hours of the day to ensure that the bank succeeded. And despite already sitting very high up in the bank, she constantly sought to improve her knowledge and understanding of the finance world – frequently attending banking and law courses.

Gender played an important role in defining Mary Roebling and she used her position of power and fame to drive the development of professional women across the US.

But it wasn’t all about concentrating on the business nuts and bolts for Mary – she brought her flair to the bank’s marketing campaigns too. These included offering small gifts to customers when they opened an account, introducing special promotions around public events such as St. Patrick’s Day, and even handing out umbrellas to customers when it rained.

There was also sponsorship of local events hosted by Trenton’s customers and displays created from customer’s merchandise. Particular attention was paid to the bank’s window displays – with Roebling calling bank branches “the department store of finance.” Besides the aesthetic innovations, Roebling also introduced some novel customer service tools, such as customer walk-up windows and even drive-through banking at Trenton Trust branches.

It wasn’t only the bank where Roebling realised marketing was important; she employed a full-time PR professional to handle her personal public relations too. “She knew how to play the game and she projected an aura of power and confidence. Even if you were close to her, as I felt I was, you still felt that aura,” said Eunice Levie who was responsible for her public relations. This strong personality was emphasised by her appearance: Roebling was only seen wearing clothes from the nation’s top designers, resulting in her being named the US’s best-dressed banking woman in 1958. She also lived in style, purchasing plush homes in New York, Trenton and Palm Beach that allowed her to entertain and sell, not only Trenton Trust, but the Mary Roebling ‘brand’.

In 1941, Roebling became the Chairperson of Trenton Trust, yet another first for a female. And, by 1950, she had helped turn the bank around to have assets of $70m. The self-named “banker in high heels,” had proven to herself, her colleagues and society that women could maintain behaviours associated with femininity and be equally capable as men. Indeed, a New York Times profile at the time stated that “it is difficult at first to realise that a woman with her natural charm built the total resources of her bank from $17,000,000 in 1936 to $70,000,000 today. She acts like the wife of a successful banker, not the banker herself.”

Championing women

Gender played an important role in defining Mary Roebling and she used her position of power and fame to drive the development of professional women across the US. It was Roebling’s goal to bring equal pay and equal opportunities for career progression. She believed that companies and women themselves were not exercising their power fully. “As a woman who for years has competed in the business world, I would be the first to agree that the American woman has almost unbelievable economic power, but American women, like women of all civilized nations, do not use the influence their economic power gives them,” she explained in 1965. Roebling frequently spoke out publicly about issues that women faced, addressing sexism in the boardroom and pay inequality in particular. She also passed some of the onus onto women whom she believed had to want success and work hard for it – in Roebling’s world nothing should be handed to anyone on a plate solely because of their gender.

Roebling did more than talk about the challenges facing women though – she actively sought ways to empower women in the financial sphere. At Trenton, Roebling hosted teas for women to discuss banking and also introduced female service counters. She took this ambition further and launched a bank focused solely on women. The Women’s Bank N.A. of Denver was founded in 1978 and was the first US bank to be founded by women. Serving as its Chairperson, Roebling believed that the bank could assist women in ways that a traditional bank couldn’t. At the opening of the bank, she announced: “women’s banks can be better listeners for women and give them more time, advice and direction than an ordinary bank would give.”

For Roebling, the ultimate aim of the bank was to “translate the economic power of our women into a more productive and profitable resource for the whole community.” Business-minded as ever, Roebling was acutely aware that the bank was not just a public service and put the same levels of dedication and effort into the financial success of bank as she did Trenton – by 1981, it had accumulated over $21m in deposits.

Forbes magazine said that: “Mary G. Roebling didn’t wait for women’s liberation, she was ahead of it, way ahead.” Roebling was named by Vogue as one of the most powerful women in the world and her achievements were admired by many, including her daughter. “My mother was one of the first to speak out on equal pay for equal work. It drove her crazy that women would earn less than men for doing the same job. But she didn’t just complain – she did something about it.”

Despite all this success, even the most powerful people have fears – and for Roebling it was that the hard work and progress that had been made in driving gender equality would eventually be for nothing because of technology. “The economic forces that allowed women to escape from the home to work and earn a livelihood will, within 20 years, turn like Frankenstein’s monster and destroy the job opportunities which are now open to most women,” she famously commented.

Trenton and beyond

Perhaps this is part of the reason why Roebling never had just one iron in the fire. Aside from her work at the bank she immersed herself in a number of directorships at corporations, including the Standard Fire Insurance Company and the Colonial Operating Company. She also was a member of the National Business Council on Consumer Affairs and an officer of the New York World’s Fair Corporation as well as being active in a number of other non-profit organisations.

Out of all these positions, the most prestigious and one that she claimed as “possibly the most outstanding appointment since I was made president of Trenton Bank,” was her governorship at the American Stock Exchange (AMEX). Here, Roebling triumphed as the first women to hold such a position.

Compared to Roebling’s other endeavours, this role was not particularly onerous – she was required to report public reaction and thoughts from those in the market to the board of governors. Attendance at meetings was optional and, over a two and a half year period, she only attended four meetings. Despite this, the role was symbolic and threw open the doors for women to participate on the trading floor – Roebling was the first woman to be able to walk the floor unaccompanied by a man. It is worth noting, however, that it took three years, following Roebling’s departure from the AMEX in 1962, until another female member was appointed.

Service to the country

Unsurprisingly, Roebling’s ‘power status’ opened a number of doors that allowed her to exercise her natural charm and social skills. Aside from socialising with business leaders and movie stars, the gates of the capitol were also open to Roebling who mingled with a number of US Presidents including Ford, Carter, Bush Sr. and Nixon. In fact, she served as a delegate in Nixon’s 1960 presidential campaign, sparking a lifelong friendship that would see her unwaveringly support his controversial tenure.

Her political influence was more than a social affair as she served on a number of governmental initiatives such as the China Relief Bill, International Rescue Committee and many business councils. Her main governmental service, however, was for the military that she staunchly supported, through her conservative values. She was the only woman on the Citizens Advisory Committee on Armed Forces Training Installations in 1950. She was also appointed to the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services and the Recruiting and Public Information Subcommittee. Later in her life she was appointed Civilian Aide Emeritus and employed her skills of public speaking and public relations to make speeches and advise others in the military. For her services to the military, Roebling received a number of prestigious awards including the President’s Medal from the Association of the United States Army.

The full package

A mother, astute businesswoman, socialite, political lobbyist, supporter of the armed forces, trailblazer for women’s rights and a prominent banker, Roebling certainly had plenty of strings to her bow. With such a wide range of interests she had little time for herself and for hobbies outside of her professional life. Although she was an avid collector of porcelain, paintings and glass and a supporter of music and arts, it was her work that dominated her life. “I made work my hobby, I was lucky in that way,” she later said.

In 1972, the Trenton Trust merged with the National State Bank, creating the largest bank in the country based on assets at the time, and she served as its chairperson until the age of 78, when she finally retired, after a long career at the top. When reflecting on the start of her career she said that: “there were many people around who naturally thought I would fail and I think that was the fun of it all. There is no greater thrill than that of achievement, particularly if some people say it can’t be done.”

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