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Updated: April 6, 2020 / 2020 Women in Business Awards

From teller to CEO, Merkle leads CT’s banking industry

Photo | J. Fiereck Photogrphy

Cynthia Merkle never planned for a career in banking, let alone to lead one.

In fact, after graduating from art school, it was her father — who ran a successful accounting firm — who encouraged her to pursue a career in business.

Nearly four decades later, Merkle has grown from bank teller to president and CEO of Union Savings Bank (USB), the Danbury-headquartered community bank with 26 branches in Connecticut, including several in Greater Hartford.

Last September, she also became the first woman to chair the Farmington-based Connecticut Bankers Association.

Merkle credits her career trajectory with being patient and not being afraid to get out of her comfort zone, two traits she says are essential to professional growth and leadership development.

“Over my career I have served in nearly every area of a bank,” Merkle said. “I was always willing to try something new and [people] develop better skills if [they’re] willing to do that.”

One benefit of that breadth of experience for Merkle was learning to work with and develop diverse teams.

“A good leader is someone who surrounds themselves with people who know things [he or she] doesn’t know,” she said.

It’s an approach and empowerment philosophy that Merkle brought to USB, since joining the bank in 2013.

She points to the collaborative decision-making process to determine USB’s project and product priorities as an example.

“Representatives from critical areas [including IT, customer experience and business line leaders] serve on a USB steering committee to review the business case and cost analysis for initiatives,” Merkle said, noting projects must align with the bank’s forward-looking roadmap.

One recent initiative incorporated the use of biometric technology — voice recognition — for customer-service calls. The technology eliminated the need for customer-identification screening questions, making for a better, faster customer experience and increasing efficiency and cost reductions for the bank. More than 8,000 customers, Merkle says, have opted into the service to date.

And it’s not just business priorities that Merkle’s put more discipline around. Under her leadership, the strategic focus on USB’s charitable support in the communities it serves has also been sharpened.

“Cindy has led the development of a long-term growth plan with the goal of increasing the size of our Foundation [currently with $8 million in assets] and its charitable impact,” said Michele Bonvicini, USB’s director of community relations. “With Cindy as our role model, our employees donated more than 10,000 hours in the community last year alone.”

That commitment to community — with USB’s emphasis on educational initiatives — is a priority to Merkle, who is the past board chair of the United Way of Western Connecticut and currently serves as board chair at Endicott College and vice chair of the Danbury Chamber of Commerce.

“We want our communities to be healthy because that helps our success,” Merkle said.

Merkle is equally committed to advancing leadership roles for women — a trend she’s seen evolving over her career.

“The banking industry employs more than 50 percent women, and Connecticut has come a long way,” she says, noting that five banks in the state have female CEOs. “That is unique and it takes having more women in leadership roles to make sure that those doors open.”

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