As CEO of First United Bank and Trust, ABA Treasurer Carissa Rodeheaver views personal relationships as the core business strength of the institution.
By Walt Williams
Carissa Rodeheaver didn’t set out to become a banker, but like many people at some point in their careers, she was in a job that she found unfulfilling. The Maryland native was an accounting major with a comfortable position at a Fortune 500 company, but it meant many hours of sitting behind a desk and staring at a computer, with few interactions with people. So when the father of a childhood friend suggested Rodeheaver apply for a job at the community bank that he ran — First United Bank and Trust — she was open to a career change, even if she didn’t jump at the opportunity.
“They offered me the job and I turned it down,” says Rodeheaver, who is now president and CEO of First United as well as treasurer of ABA’s Board of Directors. “But I thought about it for a few more days and I called back and said, ‘You know, I’d like to reconsider.’”
“Part of what appealed to me was that they were so personable, and it was so comfortable for me to sit and have conversations with them,” Rodeheaver explains. “And they didn’t talk like corporate America. They talked about helping people, and that’s what [bankers]do: We help people.”
First United is a $1.8 billion-asset bank headquartered in Oakland, Maryland, a small community nestled in the Appalachian Mountains in the eastern part of the state. Rodeheaver became CEO in 2016, succeeding longtime CEO Dick Stanton. As its leader, Rodeheaver ushered in a modernization of the 123-year-old institution, which included remodeling its branches and reworking the bank’s brand and appearance, all with the focus of emphasizing its ties and relationships to the communities it serves. The transformation had started before Rodeheaver became CEO, but when she took the reins, she committed the bank fully to the overhaul.
“That’s probably the first big risk that I took with the company: Do we go all in, or do we just change the logo?” she says. “And we said we will go all in. The reason we felt that was important was that we had to transition the bank from your grandma’s bank to a bank where younger people would see us being more vibrant and more relevant.”
Moving to the C-suite
Rodeheaver was raised in Maryland’s Garrett County, with Oakland as the county seat. She entered college as a fashion merchandising major with dreams of living in New York City and becoming a buyer for one of the larger stores there. But after a few years away, she and her husband — who she began dating in high school — decided that they wanted to stay close to home. The CEO switched her major to accounting and was able to find work that kept her close to the area.
After making the move to First United, Rodeheaver’s first position was in the bank’s trust department. “I felt like a fish that had finally found its pond,” she says. “I worked in that area as an administrator and it was such a natural fit for me because it was investment management, it was financial planning.” She earned a certified financial planning license, moved onto trust sales and slowly became more involved in strategic planning decisions at the bank. Then one day, Stanton and the bank’s HR manager reached out and asked if she was interested in becoming CFO. Her initial reaction: “What?”
“I didn’t want to ever read FASBs again — I did enough of that when I was in public accounting,” Rodeheaver jokes, referring to technical documents from the Financial Accounting Standards Board. Still, at that point, First United had just reached the billion-dollar mark and she had both the accounting and institutional experience its leadership was seeking as the bank grew. And, in truth, she had already set her sights on the CEO position and previously confided as much to her supervisor. Becoming CFO was a step toward the corner office.
“You always have to set your goals high and then work towards those goals,” Rodeheaver says.
“And if you don’t achieve that goal, that is okay as long as you continue to take steps along the way. I’ve always been very goal driven, and so, in my mind, you can never get there if you don’t know where it might go.”
Putting relationships first
Rodeheaver was CFO for 12 years before she was tapped to lead First United as CEO after Stanton’s retirement. It was a transitional period for the bank as the institution was in the middle of a branding overhaul. First United has branches in West Virginia, covering areas of the state that include West Virginia University and a booming energy sector, and parts of Pennsylvania and Maryland, which provides a mix of rural and small city customers. But one customer base that has been a focus under Rodeheaver’s tenure is what she labels “community-based business owners.”
“Community-oriented business owners are people that live in the community, work in the community, play in the community. They coach Little League teams, sit on the PTO at the school, serve on nonprofit boards — they’re people who are invested in their communities,” Rodeheaver says. “That’s who we are. As a community bank, we are invested in our community. And so our community-oriented business owners are those who value relationships.”
First United’s transition embraced that relationship-based approach, even in the physical design of its branches. Visitors who step into the remodeled interior of the bank’s main branch in Oakland enter an inviting, open-office design where tellers are not huddled behind a counter and glass but sit at open-air “pods” with TV monitors displaying local news bulletins behind them. First United updated its logo and overall look with sleeker, more modern designs, but in all its public-facing communications, the bank emphasized community connections and personal relationships. That philosophy was even reflected in the bank’s web address: MyBank.com.
“We build all of our products and services to take care of the community-oriented business owner,” Rodeheaver says. “That’s not to say that consumers aren’t important to us because you notice it’s not ‘community-oriented businesses.’ It’s the business owner. You don’t have relationships with businesses, you have relationships with people.”
Rodeheaver’s work with the community extends beyond her work at First United. She is the past chairman of the Maryland Bankers Association and serves on various boards and committees, and she is currently wrapping up a two-year term as ABA treasurer. Among her current roles is chair of the foundation for Garrett College, a community college with branches in Oakland and other western Maryland communities. Community service is something the bank encourages all employees to pursue. It is those community connections that Rodeheaver views as the key competitive strength of community banks.
“I can tell you that every time I go to a ballgame, or when I’m out in the community, I get (banking) questions,” she says. “People call me and feel comfortable calling me, and I welcome those calls, in the evenings or the weekends. When someone needs to get out of a bind, it’s your community bank that takes care of that.”
Editor’s note — In a 2021 episode of the ABA Banking Journal Podcast, Rodeheaver discusses her path to the c-suite and the strategies she employs at First United to provide leadership opportunities to rising generations of community bankers.