The reception room outside Sandra Pianalto’s office evokes pure red, white and blue, from the life-size oil painting of Alexander Hamilton to the eagles carved from American walnut to the stars and stripes flanking the doors.
“I don’t think there’s a day I walk in here where the physical beauty of this building doesn’t inspire me,” says Pianalto, president and CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland.
After several grueling years of high unemployment, foreclosures, bank failures and recessionary malaise, the strength and history in the fortresslike building inject a certain back-straightening oomph, Pianalto says.
The space — elegant and dignified — suits her. That’s not to say she’s stodgy. Bright-eyed and quick to smile, Pianalto projects a sense of calm warmth.
Being here, she says, stokes a sense of pride in America first lit more than 50 years ago.
When Pianalto was 5, her family moved from a small town in Northern Italy to Akron for the promise of economic opportunities.
> I set a goal for myself to learn something from any situation I’m in. That’s caused me to observe behaviors in meetings. Sometimes I’ll see someone do something that’s very effective, or not so effective, and learn from that.
> I’ve always loved learning. I was one of those strange kids who actually loved going to school.
> As a region, we have to improve the skill level of our workforce. Education and innovation go hand in hand. A better-educated workforce comes up with better ideas and is more productive. And that improves the standard of living.
> Don’t be impressed by titles because people are a lot more than titles and jobs.
< In any organization you can get into a routine or start doing activities just to check them off. So to keep us focused, I’m always saying, “What are we trying to accomplish?”
> I watched my parents struggle, especially with the language, and found that often they were made fun of or weren’t accepted as readily as people who were more mainstream Americans. That’s given me a respect for differences and diversity and a respect for all individuals.
> I was at a Nisi Prius event [a social club for lawyers and judges] and someone asked me if I ever have the urge to go in the vault and roll around in the money. No, I’ve never had that urge. I’d never even considered it, really.
By the time Pianalto reached third grade, she was helping her parents — Gino, a construction worker, and Adele, a stay-at-home mom — study for citizenship tests.
They’d gather around the kitchen table or at the sink, as Adele washed the dishes and Pianalto dried and quizzed: How many members of Congress? How often are they elected?
She found the lessons on the workings of government, in particular, fascinating. Eventually, that fascination led to an interest in public service and a career that could surely qualify as a big
bite of the American dream.
Pianalto, 57, is now one of 12 regional Federal Reserve presidents presiding over a banking system established by Congress in 1913 to help control the nation’s flow of money.
The Cleveland-based fourth district covers Ohio and parts of Kentucky, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. About 1,200 employees work at the
main office in downtown Cleveland and at branch offices in Cincinnati and Pittsburgh.
In addition to overseeing day-to-day operations at what’s known as “the banker’s bank,” Pianalto helps supervise several hundred financial institutions in the district and provide financial services to the Treasury,
to banks, thrifts and credit unions.
And, most importantly, she helps set monetary policy, not only for the region, but also the nation.
Pianalto sits on the powerful Washington, D.C.-based Federal Open Market Committee. Her voice and vote affect interest rates, which in turn influence some of Americans’ biggest life decisions, such as whether to start a business or buy a house.
She does all this, friends and colleagues say, with quiet strength and tireless dedication.
“If you just met her and didn’t know what she did, you’d never know she was one of the most powerful people in the country,” says her friend, Lee Friedman, CEO of College Now.
Early on, Pianalto thought she’d pursue a career in politics.
When she entered the University of Akron, she initially leaned toward political science. An Intro to Economics class taught by Elizabeth Erickson, however, changed her course.
“She was an amazing professor and just made economics so interesting,” Pianalto says. The combination of math, history and political science suited her perfectly.
She landed her first post-college jobs in D.C. but returned to Ohio, in part, because she thought she might run for office someday.
“I needed to come to a place where I had roots,” she says. And the Federal Reserve Bank represented her way back.
She started in the research department in 1983 and continued moving. Her big career jump came in 1992, when she was named COO, the bank’s No. 2 position.
Coming up through the research side, Pianalto had no operations experience. But leaders at the bank wanted a change in culture from a traditional, top-down hierarchy to a more participatory, team management style.
Pianalto was a good fit. A vice president at the time, she was promoted over nine senior vice presidents in operations.
That set the stage for her ascent to the top post in 2003 as the 10th president of the bank, and only the second to come from within.
Pianalto brought a very different face to the position, says Heather Ettinger, a managing partner at Fairport Asset Management.
“I think people felt much more heard and supported,” Ettinger says. “The bank was no longer just a think tank and a nice but somewhat intimidating resource.”
Pianalto stays engaged through countless meetings and lunches with business leaders and membership on several civic boards.
“She wanted to talk to people who were out there in the trenches so she could make the data come alive,” Ettinger says. “Is that data true? Is it really telling us what’s going on out there?”
Economic forecasting can only go so far, Pianalto says. And firsthand information has been invaluable for spotting trends and finding ways to help.
Pianalto vividly remembers stories shared by regional business leaders in the late summer of 2008. The official data wasn’t showing the extent of the economy’s problems yet, she recalls.
“The words I heard over and over were ‘Our business has fallen off a cliff,’ ” she says. In one case, a company’s order backlog, which typically stretched for 18 months, had plummeted to almost zero overnight.
“In these very uncertain times, our models are limited because models are based on equations and experiences from the past,” she says. “We haven’t been through what we’re going through now since the Depression, so there are not a lot of data points for these models to use.”
In her early days as president, Pianalto remembers listening to other Fed presidents talking about rosier growth. Why was her district lagging, she wondered.
Pianalto sat down with her research staff and devised a plan to investigate what drove income growth nationwide over a 75-year period.
The top two factors turned out to be the skill level of the workforce (measured by educational attainment) and innovation (measured by patents per capita). Ohio was once one of the top-tier states in innovation. And, now, Ohio is the middle of the pack in patent generation and 38th in the country in
Her advocacy has inspired civic leaders not just to push for the creation of new industries, but also to encourage innovation in old companies as well, through new procedures and product lines, says Joe Roman, president and CEO of the Greater Cleveland Partnership.
That sort of reasoned approach, based on careful consideration of the facts, is one of the reasons Pianalto is so highly respected in the business community, Roman says.
“She gets her point across by being accurate, not by beating on the table,” he says.
Pianalto’s quiet confidence has proven itself year after year, says Ronn Richard, president and CEO of The Cleveland Foundation.
“She’s like the E. F. Hutton of our board,” Richard says. “She’s not a person who dominates the conversation. She sits back and listens and synthesizes the information. But when she speaks, people listen.”
Numbers and economic reports aside, Pianalto never forgets the real people behind the statistics, according to those who know her.
“Sandy is very intelligent and clearly very accomplished,” Ettinger says. “She’s striking. She’s beautiful and very well put together. And because of all that, I guess there’s a certain formality. But she is one of the most caring, warm and sincere people you’ll ever meet.”
Mike Benz met Pianalto in a Leadership Cleveland class and spotted those qualities right away. When he became president of United Way of Greater Cleveland in 1995, he made it his mission to recruit her.
Pianalto had been a United Way donor for years and is now a board member and lifetime director.
“She’s not just a name on a roster,” Benz says. “She’s actively engaged.”
She’s called and emailed him from car rides to the airport, from Europe and all over the country. He’s talked to her on the phone at 11 p.m., early in the morning and on weekends.
“When she gets a minute, she always makes time,” Benz says. “And that includes when the economy was really in the dumper bad, bad, bad.”
Pianalto helped rework the United Way’s funding strategy based on researched priorities. Instead of sending checks to agencies, the United Way now supports specific projects within the agencies.
Pianalto says she keeps tabs on what’s happening in the real world by noting everything from the tremendous increase in calls to the United Way’s 211 help line to touring Cleveland neighborhoods devastated by foreclosures to simply talking with employees, relatives and friends.
“Some of my close friends lost their companies through this recession,” Pianalto says. “It’s very easy to stay grounded at the micro level as well as looking at the macro level.”
Staying active keeps her spirits up. An avid exerciser, Pianalto often joins early morning spinning classes in the bank’s fitness center.
Her horse, a hunter-jumper named Turner, also helps with stress relief. At the stables where she boards him, Pianalto brushes Turner and cleans his hooves before warming up with cantering and trotting. Then they start jumping, beginning with low barriers and building up to fences about 3 1/2 feet tall.
“It’s a great activity for me because when I’m on horseback, I have to stay totally focused on what I’m doing,” Pianalto says. “So it’s a very nice stress reliever. I can’t daydream or think about what happened during the day.”
Pianalto, who is single, is tight with her family, which now includes eight nieces and nephews. “We’re a very, very close family, and I think that’s also part of being immigrants,” Pianalto says. “The first few years living in this country we didn’t speak English very well, so my sisters and I were not only sisters, but best friends.”
Her sisters — Rosanna, assistant to the Federal Reserve’s Board of Governors, and Antonella, vice president of government affairs for American Express — live in the D.C. area. Pianalto’s brother, Jim, project manager for the Ruhlin construction company, and his family live across the street from her in Bath.
Every Sunday, when she’s in town, Pianalto cooks dinner for her family, a tradition she inherited when her mother died in 1995.
Italy provides another escape. Pianalto tries to return to Valli del Pasubio every year. Her family kept its home there, and some aunts and uncles and cousins live nearby.
And, at her very core, a love for America and the knowledge that she’s taking active steps to improve the economy keeps her going.
An employee art committee chose a sculpture called The Enthusiast, a smiling bronze figure with its arms raised, for her office. It sits near framed snapshots of Pianalto with Fed Chief Ben Bernanke and his predecessor Alan Greenspan.
“We’re digging ourselves out of a very deep hole. But I’m very confident that ... we are going to get back on track,” Pianalto says. “The United States is still the most innovative country in the world.”
Enrolls at The University of Akron, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in economics. “It was a strange concept for Italian parents to have their 18-year-old daughters go live away from home, unless they were getting married. Fortunately for my two sisters and I, we had The University of Akron in our backyard. So we lived at home and commuted.”
Turns down a job offer from the CIA as a researcher for their Italian desk and, instead, accepts a position as a research assistant for the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System in Washington, D.C. “My first day on the job, I took a tour of the building, including the board room where the Federal Open Market Committee meets, with its huge mahogany table. Being young and idealistic I thought, Wow, I want to sit at that table someday. Now I have an assigned seat.”
Goes to work for the Budget Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives working for then-California Rep. Norman Mineta, who represented the Silicon Valley area.
Joins the Federal Reserve Bank in Cleveland as an economist in the research department.
Appointed assistant vice president of public affairs for the bank.
Earns master’s in economics from The George Washington University.
Promoted to vice president and secretary to the board of directors.
Completes an advanced management program at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business.
Becomes first vice president and COO.
Oversees a major renovation of the bank’s main building and construction of a new operations center, including a fully automated vault.
Named president and CEO.
First year voting on the influential Federal Reserve Open Market Committee, a duty that rotates every other year between the presidents of the Chicago- and Cleveland-based banks. “The first time I gave a speech as a voting member, when I finished, the markets sold off in reaction to one factual sentence: ‘The January data came in strong.’ That sentence was translated to mean I supported an increase in interest rates. It really made me see how carefully I needed to choose every word I say in public settings.”
Serves as chairwoman of the United Way of Greater Cleveland’s board.
Named vice chair of the Greater Cleveland Partnership’s board of directors.