Johnson Always Takes Global View

November 15, 2004
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GRAND RAPIDS — Business development has always been a big part of Martha Johnson’s job, and she does it as she always has, on a worldwide scale.

Johnson, Bank One’s vice president of global services, brought nearly 20 years of international business and trade experience with her when she joined the bank three months ago.

She most recently worked as manager of international credit for Steelcase Inc. Prior to that, she was a senior business development representative at Crowe Chizek and Co. in Grand Rapids, a position she took after 17 years in international banking at the former St. Joseph Bank & Trust (Key Bank) in South Bend, Old Kent Bank in Grand Rapids and Fifth Third Bank in Chicago.

Johnson, who has a bachelor’s degree in business administration and accounting from Notre Dame, said she got into accounting because it suited her.

“What suited me was the thinking process and how organized and disciplined it is, but I always knew I didn’t want to go into public accounting. Banking offered the best of both worlds; I was able to do the commercial credit thing, which gave me all the exposure to the different companies, yet have the type of environment that was very family friendly.”

Johnson spent the first year of her career as a commercial credit analyst for what is now Key Bank, going through the whole accounting cycle with customers. She described the job as “great training” because it included everything from mundane tasks like line of credit renewals to complicated equipment loans and restructuring loans for companies involved in mergers and acquisitions.

She took care of a “huge portfolio” of customers, of whom several were large importers and one a large exporter.

“As I was analyzing the portfolio I realized I really liked what they were doing and wanted to understand better what they were doing,” Johnson recalled.

She moved right from there to the bank’s international department, where a position had just opened up, and she ran the operation for a couple of years. Looking back, she says “it was meant to be” and that’s the side of the business she has stuck with ever since.

The international business and trade services area of banking was just getting off the ground.

“Also, in the early 1980s things were tough economically and companies were going international because the markets were so bad here,” she recalled. “They reached overseas to try to even out their cycles or exploit opportunities outside of the state. A lot of people were forging new territory back then and we were all kind of doing it together.

“I’ve always loved the middle market and especially manufacturers. Maybe I’m really just a frustrated engineer,” she joked.

St. Joseph Bank (Key Bank) went through three banking mergers during her tenure there, and Johnson said she lived through every flavor of merger with that organization. That was likely good preparation for what was to come.

She joined Old Kent Bank in 1993, where she hired teams and built the sales side of the bank’s international trade business.

“In the early ’90s, banks started to wake up and realize they couldn’t just sit back and be order-takers anymore; they had to develop a sales culture.”

Johnson lived through Old Kent’s merger with Fifth Third and is now living through a transition as Bank One blends with JP Morgan Chase & Co.

Bank One merged with JP Morgan Chase & Co. July 1; its branches nationwide will convert to the Chase brand next year.

“I’m downright excited about it. Chase is such a good fit with this organization. Chase is wonderful, internationally. They love how strong we are in the middle market and they really want us to grow that. I’ve been through some pretty crazy mergers; I’ve seen the good, the bad and the ugly. But this one is definitely a good one.”

Right now Johnson supports 60 to 70 middle-market bankers who call her when their customers need any international services. She covers the entire state of Michigan and greater Cleveland

The bank does transactions around the world and Johnson figures her work touches at least three or four countries a day. “I’m a very social person and I have a lot of ‘teacher’ in me. I love to help people find solutions. That’s one of the big things that always appealed to me about international.”

As Johnson explained, because the world is so big and because international bankers only have so much time, they all tend to concentrate on different areas. International bankers tend to have more agreeable relationships with one another, and that’s much more to Johnson’s liking, too.

“You can’t be a specialist for the whole globe, so international bankers really ‘play nice.’ We share knowledge with each other because we have to help each other out or it won’t work. In traditional commercial banking, bankers are focused on their local markets and highly competitive. That’s not so for international. There’s plenty of business out there for everybody.”

One of the most challenging times in her career was during the Korean crisis in the 1990s when she had to help several firms here that had huge exposures to auto manufacturers in Korea.

“We had automotive manufacturing customers that were sending all kinds of components to Korea. The question was how do we all mitigate this risk, get paid for taking the risk, and go for the long term instead of panicking and bailing and taking a loss?”

The answer was to restructure the debt and work with their Korean counterparts, she said, because when things did turn around in Korea, the American manufacturers that stuck it out would be the first in line. She said it’s a tribute to West Michigan companies that a lot of them think that way.

Johnson took the position with Bank One because she saw it as more challenging, particularly given the international presence of Chase, which has 50-plus locations around the world. The company is “incredibly rich” with new technology, so there’s a wealth of data available to serve customers, she added.

In 1999 the Detroit Chapter of Women in International Trade named Johnson International Woman of the Year, and in 2000 the West Michigan World Trade Association honored her as West Michigan World Trader of the Year.

The latter award was “really sweet,” Johnson said.

“That meant a lot to me after being here for seven years and working so hard to get to know the community, to give back and have an impact. To be recognized was huge.”    

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