A view from the top: Nova MBA recounts career experiences

Justin Runquist

Donna Coughey usually climbs and climbs until she can find the best view.

Her office at First Financial Bank overlooks the heart of Downingtown, a lively village with a rural charm. She is the bank’s president and CEO, which is the most recent stop in her 25-year career that started as a bank teller at Pittsburgh’s Mellon Bank. From her window she can see locals strolling in and out of the avenue stores. Coughey takes pride in knowing her bank and its holding company, Chester Valley Bancorp, have helped many in the Downingtown area climb to new heights too.

“I love my job,” Coughey, who graduated from the University in 1988, said. “The fun of banking is that you get to impact people’s lives, and from my perspective you get to really influence how that happens.”

Coughey, 52, oversees a large, multi-faceted, publicly traded organization. But, at the same time, she never forgot that the stories behind individual people are most important.

“In community banking you get to have a lot of fun,” she said. “Our business is family, its town parties, its community. It’s a mixture of everything.”

Community involvement is at the top of Coughey’s priority list, as well as providing banking and investing services to non-profit groups. She serves on the board of directors of about eight different organizations, from the Dean’s Advisory Council at the College of Commerce and Finance to her local YMCA to the United Way of Chester County.

Coughey has a deep appreciation for the efforts of her customers and those in her organization. She, too, started small and patiently, yet persistently, worked hard to soar in her career.

She vividly remembers a time she attended a lumberman convention with over 250 men and no other women. She’s pushed herself to learn to learn new things, from painting to how to shoot a gun (although she’s never owned one). Coughey also took up skiing recently, risking her first lessons on

bunny slopes filled with kamikaze five-year-old skiers.

The determination she shows on ski slopes follows through in her approach to her career.

When she started at Mellon Bank, she held only a high school diploma, had no experience and saw little room for advancement. She decided to pursue night classes at Point Park College, Pittsburgh, while continuing her job and supporting her young children.

It took her 7½ years to complete her undergraduate degree.

Coughey found early on that her willingness to roll up her sleeves and work would open up tremendous opportunities for her. And she was right.

“I worked in operations or backroom areas, then retail banking, then human resources, then commercial lending,” she said. “I’ve been involved in almost every aspect of banking that there was. As I manage this company and look at trends today, I know what’s going on. When I present my key points (for improvement) with my committees, we can really accomplish a lot.”

In retail banking, she enjoyed the opportunity to work with people and help them solve problems. Coughey also liked her experience in human resources. It was there that she saw the benefit in helping people advance in their careers.

Her next position in commercial lending was especially exciting for her. “Companies I worked with ranged from 20 million to a billion dollars in sales,” she said. “Everyday was a learning experience. I learned so much about different industries and different parts of businesses. I got to see some really neat companies and meet some really neat people.”

Coughey believes commercial banking is one of the most rewarding jobs in the world. “I have the best job in the world because I get to oversee an organization that gives small businesses their first big break,” she said. “We provide them with seed money and help them to grow.”

Coughey has helped her own organizations grow too. Before she arrived in Downingtown, she was chairwoman, president and CEO of the Mellon Bank in the Delaware region. During her four years there, she started a new Wealth Management Center, Sales Plan process, and saw commercial deposits grow by 19 percent. During her time as CEO at Chester Valley Bancorp, Coughey has led the company to 38 percent growth in net income for 2002, and has saw the company’s stock price rise steadily.

“(Donna) is very, very bright,” James McErlane, chairman of Chester Valley Bancorp, said to the Philadelphia Business Journal. “She has helped us to go the next step in a very brief period of time.”

Coughey succeeds because she is passionate about her profession. She has no problem taking her briefcase to the beach, or talking business at parties. The job is constantly on her mind.

“The greatest reward in my job is implementing strategies, and immediately seeing what happens,” she said. “I like to think I have the guts to take those kinds of risks.”