Elaine Agather: 29 Years of Power Banking

She’s been through no fewer than eight corporate mergers–and weathered them all. Now, as chairwoman of the Dallas region for JPMorgan Chase Bank, Elaine Agather is showing why it’s no contradiction for resiliency, drive, and smarts to come wrapped in a chic package.

image of elaine agather
COWGIRL CHIC: Elaine Agather, the rodeo-loving chairwoman of JPMorgan Chase Bank’s Dallas region, advises upcoming bankers to saddle their own horses and enjoy what they’re doing.
photography by Dan Sellers

Her perfectly manicured hands manage assets worth billions of dollars at a bank with a 150-year legacy of serving the ultra-rich. But don’t think she’s all pinstripe banker’s grey. Elaine Agather, chairwoman of the Dallas region for JPMorgan Chase Bank, is a dynamo wrapped in pink, a cross between Legally Blonde’s Elle Woods and Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada. In fact there’s a widespread story—not true, she protests—that when Prada was released, Agather handed out copies of the movie to her employees as a joke.

Maybe the story gained currency because, like Priestly, Agather’s a perfectionist about serving her clients. Maybe it’s because her employees know that at any bank-sponsored event for those clients, they’d better not talk to each other, but focus instead—totally focus—on the clients. Maybe it’s because that event had better be damn interesting, entertaining, and finished in a timely fashion so those clients—some of the Southwest’s wealthiest, who seek advice 24/7 on everything from taxes and real estate to oil and gas leases—can get in and out with the vital information they need. Then again, maybe it’s because Agather’s a beautiful blonde who always dresses to the nines and wears a lot of Prada.

“She wears the best clothes,” says Darin Oduyoye, chief communications officer for JPMorgan Private Bank in New York, who sees beautiful women in fashionable clothes every day. “She was wearing a pink leopard-skin jacket and pink heels the last time she was here.”

Agather is tough, energetic, and chic, all wrapped in one glamorous package. But don’t let the wrapper fool you. She can play hardball and skirmish with the big boys in banking just fine, as she has for 29 years. “She’ll put on her jeans and hang out with the guys,” says Gary Tipton, president and CEO of Dallas’ Inwood National Bank. “But no one pushes her around.”

Especially not when she’s wearing cowboy boots. Agather has ridden on horseback in the “grand entry” at the Fort Worth Exposition and Stock Show every year since 1992. She loves rodeo because it’s pure fun, she says, and serves on the advisory board of the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall Of Fame. Ten years ago, Agather was asked to raise $3 million to $4 million to help relocate the museum from Hereford, Texas, to Fort Worth; she wound up raising $22 million for a new facility, which opened in 1994.

Agather’s ability to stay in the saddle may help explain her other claim to fame: her resiliency in business. Few people in the tumultuous, watch-your-back world of corporate banking and finance can say they’ve been with their first employer for 29 years. But Agather has topped that, surviving eight potential golden handshakes during that time.

Over the last 15 years, U.S. banks have been so busy acquiring and consolidating, consumers can have a hard time keeping up with the hyphenated names, much less remembering which bank was the first to mega-merge with the rest. But Agather rattles off her employer’s history as smoothly as she quotes today’s prime rate.

First it was Chemical Bank of New York, where she began working in 1979 after graduating with an MBA from the University of Texas at Austin Business School (just 15 percent of her fellow grads that year were women). Chemical Bank bought Texas Commerce Bank in 1987, then snapped up First City the second time it failed. After that it gobbled up Manufacturers Hanover, Ameritrust (part of M Bank), and finally Chase in 1996, taking on the Chase name two years later.

In 2000, the stately Chase bought storied JPMorgan, with William B. Harrison at its helm. In 2004 Chase went shopping in Chicago and acquired Bank One, headed by James Dimon. Legend has it that Harrison and Dimon—who became CEO in 2006 and recently orchestrated the acquisition of the ailing Bear Stearns investment bank at fire-sale prices—wanted to create another Citigroup to take on that trillion-dollar behemoth.

With every merger, of course, comes the slashing and mad dash to see who’s staying and who’s out the door. But it didn’t used to be that way—at least not in Dallas. Inwood’s Tipton remembers “gentlemanly” banking in Dallas in the late 1970s, when no bank would dare hire another’s employees. (Tipton even recalls receiving phone calls from fellow bankers alerting him to a peeved client who was about to yank deposits to a competing bank.) But then came the great regulatory unleashing to foster competition. With the JPMorgan Chase-Bank One merger, for example, about 10,000 jobs were reported eliminated from top to bottom.  But Agather lived through all of it, working 17 years in corporate banking—12 in private banking—to end up where she is today, perched on the sleek, fine-art-filled 10th floor of 2200 Ross Ave. As chairwoman of the substantially growing Dallas region, Agather is helping build wealth for rich people living in Texas as well as in Louisiana, Arkansas, and Oklahoma. Last year, under Agather, JPMorgan Chase’s Dallas-region business grew 25 percent in a company with $487 billion in total client assets.

Almost every banker who knows her has this to say: Elaine Agather really runs the joint. “Elaine takes ownership of her job,” says Tipton. “She services her clients, she’s approachable, does the follow-through, and makes everyone feel special.”

Michael Walsh, who heads JPMorgan’s Private Bank, Southeast Region, says that Agather’s “EQ”—or emotional intelligence quotient—is off the charts. But don’t let her southern charm fool you, Walsh adds; a tough businesswoman who can get the deal done lies just beneath.

Still, Agather knows how to laugh and how to bring fun and camaraderie to an office. Consider the times she dressed up as the Easter Bunny and as banker J.P. Morgan. When you’re leading a team of highly motivated people who share a keen sense of urgency, you need a little stress relief now and then, says Anne Motsenbocker, president of JPMorgan’s Dallas Region, who’s worked with Agather for more than 20 years.

“She expects people around her to perform,” Motsenbocker says of Agather, “but she expects so much out of herself and has a huge amount of energy and drive. That creatively marshals JPMorgan’s resources.” 

Though Agather launched her career in New York, she ironically ended up back home in Texas, just a few miles from the small town where she got the very best training a modern banker could ask for:

Get up early, stay late, and work hard.

‘I So Should Have Taken ‘Home Ec’ ’
It was 1968 in Sherman, Texas, and Elaine Bradley was 13. In her junior high school, girls had to take home economics classes to learn to cook, sew, tend the house, and otherwise prepare to be sensible homemakers. Gloria Steinem wouldn’t snag a headline until more than four years later, when women would burn bras to protest their stereotypical roles as homemakers and demand a crack in the glass ceiling.

Elaine wasn’t burning anything; she was just mad that boys didn’t have to take “home ec,” while girls did. It’s just not fair, she said, although she did her share of house-cleaning with her sisters, because that’s what was expected. She went to her mother seeking an ally—which to her surprise she got.

“I was the fourth daughter. I think she was just tired,” Agather says. “She intervened and they let me take French instead of home ec. I so should have taken home ec.”

Agather was reared in Sherman, the youngest daughter of George and Lorene Bradley. Her father operated a bulldozer after receiving an 8th grade education; her mother was a deft seamstress and homemaker. Elaine was always working—teaching swimming lessons, wrapping gifts at a Sherman jewelry store called Tappans. Those jobs, she says, gave her self-esteem early, while her family was always supportive and had no doubt that young Elaine could stop a tornado if she put her mind to it.

“My parents were very modern in their thinking,” Agather says. “I’m not even sure my father understood what graduate business school was, but, after I finished college and told him what I was doing, he said, ‘Great!’”

Back in the late 1970s, the big banks weren’t on campus recruiting MBAs in Austin. But Agather had her eyes on the Big Apple, where there were more women in banking and banking management than in all of Texas. Graduate degree in hand, she went to New York City in 1979 to interview at Chemical Bank. She got an offer and ran to a pay phone at Fifth and 57th Street to call home—collect.

“I said, ‘I just got a job offer in New York at Chemical Bank,’ ” Agather recalls.

Well, her father teased her, “does that mean now you’ll stop calling home collect?”

Ditch The ‘Über-Sensitivity’
Agather had been in New York for just a few weeks when her boss called her into his office and told her that he needed an analyst in London. And, just like that, she was living and working in England.

Women, Agather says, tend not to be good risk takers; they don’t like to lurch forward or raise their hands, in contrast to men, who always forge ahead. Working as an analyst in Great Britain, she says, tripled her confidence. Not that London had been in her playbook; in fact, Elaine didn’t have a playbook.

“I’ve never really had a [career] track,” she says. “I was always so happy doing what I was doing, and so focused, I never sought out other jobs.”

 Which might be why they came to her. When her bossed called and said, “OK, now we need you in San Francisco,” Agather saddled up again. Too often, she says, people spend so much time worrying about their next step, they can’t focus on the present. Saddle your own horse, she advises, like what you’re doing, and do it “tremendously.”

Agather credits much of her success to the mentors she’s had—many of them men—who’ve given her tough feedback and honest opinions. And she’s taken it all in stride. “I’ve had men who’d name my outfits ‘Pepto-Bismol pink,’” she says. “I’m called ‘honey’ all the time, and it doesn’t bother me one bit.”

Pack a walloping sense of humor and solicit regular feedback from your mentors, Agather advises, but don’t cry if you don’t like what you hear. The minute you cry, she says, the feedback will end. It’s a healthy exercise for women to listen to how men talk to each other and to ditch the “über-sensitivity,” she goes on—and it’s best if they learn that early in their careers.

Agather currently manages about 150 people for Chase in Dallas, many of them women who find her a tough taskmaster. Those luncheon napkins? They’d best be in the right place on the table. And, male or female, you’d better not cry over a missed deadline or negative feedback. “9/11; that you cry about,” she says. “I want people who can handle the market falling and not fall apart themselves.”

No ‘Banker’s Hours’
It was 1984, and Elaine was thinking for a nano-second that it might be nice to go home to Texas. Then a watershed event occurred. “We’re going to open an office in Texas,” her boss announced. Faster than you can spur a horse to run, Agather was living in Dallas. Chemical bought Texas Commerce Bank in 1987 and, in 1991, Agather moved to Fort Worth to be the bank president. Nine months later, Texas Commerce’s chairman left and Agather was not only back in Texas, she was in charge and riding herd as chairwoman.

In 1985 she married Neils Agather, with whom she’d worked at Chemical. They’ve now been married for 22 years, have two daughters, and are all accustomed to Elaine’s grueling, 12-hour-plus workdays, the antithesis of “banker’s hours.” 

“I missed those,” Agather says with a laugh. “Must have been back in the ’60s.”

She starts each workday with a 7:15 a.m meeting—a “global hookup” on market conditions with JPMorgan private bankers from Paris, Texas, to Paris, France. By 8:30 she’s calling on clients by phone or meeting customers in person, working e-mails, or “walking” the office. Later hours find her studying the numbers or dealing with management issues. She rarely eats lunch by herself, usually dining with a client or calling on a prospect. In the afternoon she spends more time with her employees, much of it in conference calls, and continues catching up with communications.

“I cannot remember when I’ve had a couple of hours to sit at my desk,” she says, “unless it was a bank holiday.” 

In addition, there are myriad “opportunities” presented to clients to keep them informed—after all, these are customers with net worths of $25 million or more. The opportunities range from wealth-planning seminars on forming family trusts to JPMorgan’s Annual Summer Reading List. That list, which Agather enthusiastically promotes, features books recommended by the bank’s global client advisers on topics ranging from art, wine, and history to business and finance. Titles on this year’s list include Adrian Goldsworthy’s Caesar and Mira Kamdar’s Planet India: How the Fastest-Growing Democracy is Transforming America and the World.

Three out of five nights a week, Agather also has a reception or other event to attend that might involve a client or one of the many philanthropies the bank supports.

When all that’s finished, she’s at home being a mother. Some days, she says, she’s a good banker and a great mother; others, she’s a great banker and a lousy mother. She doesn’t cook but calls husband Neils, executive director of the Fort Worth-based Burnett Foundation, a “fabulous” chef. Agather also doesn’t sew, which she lamented one day to her mother years after wriggling out of that home ec class. There are things you taught me, she told her mom with a sigh, that I’ll never be able to teach my girls. Not to worry, her mother replied; you’ll teach them other things.

And she has. Her “great” daughters are extremely self-sufficient, Agather says. For example, they’ve been scheduling their own doctor’s appointments since the age of 12, when they reminded their mother they hadn’t visited a dentist in more than a year. Which may be why Agather finds it amazing that some of her daughters’ friends have mothers who all but breathe for their children, doing things for them like homework and even making their hair appointments for the senior prom.

Let those girls go on to become bankers under Agather, though, and they’ll grow up in a hurry. Big girls don’t cry, they’ll learn; big girls are resilient. Resilient like the powerhouse named Elaine Agather, who’s survived eight corporate mergers and is still going strong.

image of elaine agather
photography by Dan Sellers

CEO Snapshot

Title: Chairwoman of the Dallas Region for JPMorgan Chase Bank
Employees: 150
Personal History: Born and reared in Sherman, Texas. Married to Neils Agather; two daughters, Bradley and Lorene
Education: University of Oklahoma, B.A. in history/economics; M.B.A. from The University of Texas at Austin
Other Activities: Past chairwoman of the Dallas Citizens Council; member of The Dallas Center for the Performing Arts Board of Directors, World Presidents Organization, and Charter 100; advisory board of directors for the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame, Performing Arts Fort Worth Inc., Fossil Inc., The Gordie Foundation, the Southwest Exposition and Livestock Show, and Texas Ballet Theatre. Member of the development board for The University of Texas, and member of the Ethics Advisory Board of the Maguire Center for Ethics and Public Responsibility at Southern Methodist University
Awards: 2008 recipient of the TACA Silver Cup award; 2005 recipient of Northwood University’s Distinguished Women’s Award and the Great Women of Texas award; 2002 recipient of the Kim Dawson Attitude Award from Attitudes and Attire, the Maura Award-Women Helping Women, and The Family Place’s Trailblazer Award

image of kathleen gibson image of julia wellborn
(left) Kathleen Gibson, (right) Julia Wellborn
photography by Dan Sellers

Thriving On Growth
Women play key roles here with aggressive major banks  By Mary Candace Evans

Elaine Agather isn’t the only powerhouse female banker in Dallas-Fort Worth. Julia Wellborn has overseen the explosive growth of Charlotte, N.C.-based Wachovia Bank in this market. And, with the help of commercial-banking guru Kathleen Gibson, New York-based Citibank is hiring aggressively here.

Wellborn, a 40-year-old Atlanta native, came to Dallas 18 months ago to run Wachovia as the bank’s regional president for North Texas. But these days, all anyone seems to ask her about is real estate; in particular, that tony little corner at Preston Road and Mockingbird Lane, where experts say Wachovia is paying just under $500,000 a year to lease the land under its new Highland Park branch bank.

Wellborn is steering one of the newest and most aggressive banks in town, after Wachovia came to Dallas “starting from scratch” 40 months ago. “We did not inherit a branch network from a series of mergers,” she says.

If it seems there are more banks than churches or gas stations in Dallas, it’s partly because 78 percent of DFW residents now live within 10 minutes of a Wachovia office—all thanks to Wellborn. “As far as we know,” she says, “no other bank has come in with a ‘build it from the ground up strategy,’ as we did.”

 Wellborn worked with the city of Dallas on the architecture of the Preston/Mockingbird branch, the aesthetic goal to make it congruent with picture-perfect Highland Park Village, a stone’s throw across the street. In working with the community, newcomer Wellborn says she fell in love with Dallas and the city’s accepting spirit.

 “Dallas has a culture of accepting you at face value,” she says. “It doesn’t matter if you are a Martian or a bear, if you come here and do something great, people love you for it.” One example: A stranger she met at a Highland Park football game wrote down a full page of every service she and her family would possibly need, unsolicited.

Big D, she says, is a great place to be a female banker. “This is Dallas, where women like Annette Strauss and Laura Miller were mayors and role models,” she adds. It was the female mentors in Wellborn’s own life who taught her that femininity has a place in the business world, as does a certain amount of imperfection.

She considers herself a “servant leader” to her employees. It’s her job, Wellborn says, to help others get their jobs done: “I am happiest taking someone with an incredible amount of raw talent and helping them succeed.”

In The Sweet Spot
Gibson, 49, is a top executive at the world’s largest financial services company, with a territory stretching from Texas through Chicago and covering more than 30,000 customers—but she doesn’t carry checks. Instead, she moves money with her cellphone.

Utilizing an integrated mobile money transfer service called Citi Obopay, Gibson moves funds through her phone from her checking account to in-laws, say, or to reimburse a friend for lunch. Obopay is one of the latest tech tools from the Citi folks who were among the first to bring us ATMs (early 1970s), 24-hour ATMs (late ’70s), and click-to-pay credit cards.

Gibson, president of commercial banking in the Central U.S. Region for Citibank, loves keeping ahead of the tech curve and thriving in the sweet spot of growth: Texas. With its central location, great transportation, and low costs of living and labor, she says, the Lone Star State has surpassed California as the nation’s No. 1 exporting state with diversified exports, from goods to services.

And, with the rising tide of international business conducted in North Texas on a daily basis, Gibson sees the ca-ching that growth can bring to Citibank. Never mind what you’ve read in the media about 9,000 job cuts at Citibank, she says; in Texas, under the leadership of Gibson and her colleagues, the bank is hiring and has hundreds of jobs available.

Gibson may be in the best place to weather the nation’s economic storm, but the A&M graduate has her challenges managing 300 employees. Opportunity is worldwide; she needs to attract, train, and retain the talent to help a depositor figure out how to expand his business in China, for example.

The role of a leader, Gibson says, is not to tell experienced people what they need to be doing to instigate that growth, but to remove the barriers that get in their way. “I surround myself with good leaders,” she says. “They tell me they want to engage with someone who is getting things done.”

Gibson’s best feedback, though, comes from her team when they tell her, “You get it.” After more than 25 years in commercial and corporate banking and asset management, Gibson should “get it.” She took her knocks in the 1980s along with everyone else in the field, then survived the “bankers-will-be-extinct” phase, when on-line banking was the craze.

As a result, she passes on the lessons she’s absorbed from her mentors: Network building is vital, success is more than hard work, don’t expect people to notice your achievements—and ditch the checkbook.


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