Inside Track: Comerica’s new regional manager sets sights on mentoring leaders
Debra Van Hevele worked her way from teller window to corporate suite on the strength of lasting relationships.
Working as a part-time teller at her local Comerica Bank after high school, Debra Van Hevele never thought she would make a career out of it.
Yet now, 28 years later, she sits in her office on the 10th floor of 99 Monroe Ave. NW in downtown Grand Rapids with windows overlooking the city she just began to call home about a month ago.
As Comerica Bank’s new senior vice president and southwest regional manager, that’s quite a few steps up from her humble beginnings.
The Clinton Township native checked off just about every position on her way up the ladder. After she graduated from Western Michigan University with a degree in business management, she returned to Comerica and, within a year, was offered the opportunity to participate in the bank’s management training program.
Van Hevele jumped at the chance.
“The management training program really took me out of my comfort zone,” she said. “It challenged me, stretched me to improve my skills. I did like the teams, I did like developing and pushing individuals to succeed, and I got great satisfaction from that.”
After completing the program, Van Hevele became an assistant manager, still based on the east side of the state.
In 1996, she and her husband, John, moved to Stockbridge, where, shortly thereafter, she was promoted to banking center manager of a Comerica in Howell. In 2003, she opened another location in Howell and managed that office until 2007, when she became district manager of the Lansing/Midland area.
DEBRA VAN HEVELE
After her promotion to district manager, Van Hevele felt the need to get involved and give back to the community. As she became more involved, she began to see she shared a frustration with other local women leaders regarding how difficult it was for them to make connections in the Lansing area.
Van Hevele was part of a group that approached the Lansing Regional Chamber of Commerce about forming a women’s interest group in mid-Michigan. At around the same time, past honorees of ATHENA International also were having discussions about building a network in Greater Lansing.
The two groups connected, and from that was born ATHENA-WIN, a women’s interest network. Under the umbrella of the Lansing chamber and founded with the original principles of ATHENA International, the organization has focused on helping to develop, support and honor women leaders and encourage women to reach their full potential.
“That has been a great program because that has helped with the mentoring and networking,” Van Hevele said. “We have so many programs that we created through that organization that it’s really helped with the internal mentoring here and has really opened my eyes to see how important connections are.”
Van Hevele said making connections is one of the most crucial lessons she has learned over the course of her career.
“I always thought, ‘You work hard, you let your performance speak for itself,’” she said.
“Well, after years and years of that, I realized I need to do more than just my performance; I need to build internal networking — and that was huge, that was a big eye-opener. It was great building a business, it was great when I was managing a business development team, great with the team building, but I didn’t really put effort into my internal networking — those who could help put me on the right path.”
During the time she was working in Lansing, the financial crisis took its toll on the world of banking, and like so many others in the industry, Van Hevele felt the blow. Her position as district manager was eliminated, and she returned to her old job in Howell.
“That was a punch to the gut,” she recalled. “For somebody who’s very driven, I figured that had to be performance related, and that was a struggle. But it wasn’t, it was just during that time in banking.”
Van Hevele wasn’t down for long, however, and within a year and a half she was back to working as a district manager covering the Lansing and Jackson areas.
In early November, she was promoted to her current role as senior vice president and regional manager of Comerica’s southwest Michigan area, which covers Grand Rapids, Muskegon, Midland, Battle Creek and Kalamazoo.
In her new role at Comerica, Van Hevele is responsible for overseeing 34 banking centers, and her first couple of weeks were spent going out and meeting with each of them. She’s been getting to know her partners better, and is looking forward to establishing a synergetic relationship with them.
“I was so excited when this opportunity came up in Grand Rapids because the group here is known for their collaboration, so to be a part of this awesome group, I’m just thrilled," she said.
She’s already getting out in the community, meeting with organizations and community members and forming those new connections.
And as excited as she’s been to meet new people, Van Hevele was surprised to find out they were just as excited to meet her. Earlier this month, Jackie Taylor, a consultant with leadership organization Pondera Advisors LLC, hosted a breakfast to introduce Van Hevele to other women leaders in the area.
“I’ve worked in awesome communities, but I’ve got to tell you, I’m just in awe of being in Grand Rapids,” she said. “The collaborative spirit here just seems to be at a higher level. It’s just great.”
In moving to West Michigan, Van Hevele had to step back from ATHENA-WIN. At the end of the year she left the board where she had served as president for three years and as a member since its founding.
But she is looking forward to seeing the organization continue to grow with the benefit of a fresh perspective, and attending the ATHENA International Ignite conference in September, celebrating the 35th anniversary of ATHENA International.
At Comerica, she hopes to see a significant increase in market share on Michigan’s west side over the next five years — not only because of how good it would be for the company she’s been loyal to for nearly 29 years, but also because it would represent a group effort to get there.
The opportunity here in Grand Rapids also has provided Van Hevele with a new challenge — returning the favor.
Van Hevele is quick to point out a number of people who have mentored her and helped her get where she is today. Now it’s time for her to give back by mentoring others.
“I enjoy it, but I also want to make sure I’m adding value. So I want to challenge myself to dig in deep, push them outside of their comfort zone and push them to be stronger. That’s something I do with my own team, but this will be interesting because it’s just the start of their career.”
Van Hevele stressed the importance of being able to recognize a person’s strengths and where improvements can be made, and being open and honest with her mentees about how they can go about making those improvements.
In a way, Van Hevele has been mentoring all along, just by managing staff at each stop along the way. But for her, the addition of the designation of “mentor” is like putting a cherry on top of her career.
“It’s an honor to be asked (to mentor), and I don’t think they realize it,” Van Hevele said. “But I was thinking, ‘Wow, I got to that point. They’re asking me! I must be somewhere now!’