Thasunda Duckett can light up a room, even one filled with buttoned-down bankers and auto lenders.
She did it in January at the American Financial Services Association Vehicle Finance Conference in New Orleans, where, as a panel discussion member, she had the audience laughing and applauding.
Duckett is CEO of Chase Auto Finance. She's young -- just 40 -- a newcomer to autos and a rarity: an African-American woman in the highest ranks of auto finance.
Chase is one of the nation's top five auto lenders. Last year the company's combined auto loan and lease originations rose 12 percent to $26.1 billion. Alongside its own lending business, Chase Auto Finance provides private-label loans and leases for Jaguar Land Rover North America, Mazda North American Operations and Subaru of America.
Duckett has led Chase's auto lending unit for a year. But the bulk of her experience is in mortgages. Before she was named to her current post in February 2013, Duckett was Chase's national retail sales executive for mortgage banking. She joined Chase from Fannie Mae in 2004.
At the auto finance conference in January, a panel discussion moderator asked Duckett and other lender CEOs: "What single thing would you most like to see improve in lender-dealer relationships?" A couple of other CEOs talked about technology and the industry's resistance to adopting new methods. But audience members roared approval at Duckett's response: "What's the one thing I would like to see improve? I want more business!"
She reacted good-naturedly when the moderator teased her about problems in the mortgage industry during the recession. He said Duckett must be a "firefighter," referring to Chase assigning her from one volatile sector, mortgages, to another, auto lending, which is now under fire from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
Instead of shying away from the description, she came right back: "I guess you could call me a firefighter. I run to where all the fires are."
Duckett has a track record of gutsy moves. In a video and essay on leanIn.org, a Web site on which female executives share stories about work-life balance, she described how it changed her life when she accepted a big promotion in March 2009, during what she described as "the height of change in the mortgage industry."
Not only that, she was six months pregnant with the second of two children at the time. "Taking this risk gave me great confidence in my abilities and deepened my comfort level with taking chances," she wrote.
Besides leading Chase Auto Finance, Duckett is a member of the bank's Diversity Advisory Group and co-chairman of its Diversity Advisory Group in Mortgage Banking.
She spoke with Special Correspondent Jim Henry about the lending business, her transition from mortgages and what it's like to be a female African-American leader in the auto finance industry.
Q: What's your agenda for 2014?
A: One of the big goals, of course, has been to improve the customer experience. Our dealers are great customers. They expect and deserve a great customer experience. We've made some great strides, including expanding our service hours so that we're open when they're open, and increasing callbacks to work the more difficult deals.
Your combined loan and lease originations rose in the fourth quarter of 2013, up 16 percent to $6.4 billion.
Growth is absolutely fundamental to our 2014 focus. When I talk about growth I'm talking about prudent growth.
Optimism and the business itself are cyclical.
As the market begins to accelerate, consumer confidence rises, dealers are selling more cars -- those are all great things. But there's also that temptation to think short-term, and that's something we're just not going to do. Dealers know we're a long-term player. We've been there for them in good and bad times. Prudent, disciplined growth is our focus.
Why did Chase recently cut the number of dealers with whom it does business?
The inactivation letters we sent were with dealers that provide us with no volume or very little volume.
Our focus is to serve the dealers and to serve them well. That means we need to allocate our resources as we spend time with them in the field and do all the other things we want to be doing.
It's a very small population [that were inactivated]. It's something we do on a regular basis. It's something that is a regular part of business.
We are open for business for new relationships, absolutely we are. But we are focused on deepening relationships with dealers we do business with, that want to do business with us.
What was it like to move from mortgages to auto lending?
It is different coming from mortgages, where you truly work in the consumer space. What I enjoy in autos is that there are so many different aspects to it.
We have our manufacturing partners, and that introduces a whole international component that goes to all these parent companies overseas.
There's the commercial business where we are providing services to dealers.
But it's the dealers that have the consumer piece of the business. It's our job to help the dealers provide great customer service and to recognize how they understand their customers.
How has your experience been as a female African-American executive? Neither financial services nor the auto industry has a reputation for diversity.
It's been great in autos. The clients I talk to, we have built great relationships. What they want is great service. What they want is somebody who is knowledgeable. They want somebody who listens, somebody they can have confidence in.
I haven't had any issues, whether it's female or African-American.
It's part of my background. Absolutely, I'm proud of who I am.
As I think about being African-American and female and a leader in the auto finance industry, it's been an extremely positive experience.
Other female executives say they do a lot of mentoring for other women in the industry. Do you mentor?
I'm a huge advocate. I mentor a bunch of men and women. It's important to build awareness that there is a level of talent in this industry. There are a lot of women in very senior positions.
For me, it's personal and it's a professional thing. It's something I think is very important from a personal and a professional standpoint.
To cultivate talent, at the senior level we [at JPMorgan Chase & Co.] have a group called Women on the Move.
It's a direct dialogue with road shows, focus groups, town halls to understand their issues and share our experiences and share nuggets, things that we've experienced that are going to help them in their careers.
One of my heroes has always been my dad. He taught me to reach for the moon. If I can get that level of confidence to someone else where it's needed, I think that's important.