Pittsburgher of the Year: Jim Rohr

Walking and talking with Jim Rohr, the business titan who is changing our city yet again.


Photos by Ric Evans

Deep beneath One PNC Plaza, Jim Rohr is walking down a long hallway. He is striding with the purpose of a man who has too much to do but knows how to handle it. He is talking about fortune—and not the kind of fortune you usually find a banker discussing.

Suddenly, he stops. This is noteworthy because Rohr is a strider, in the tradition of determined CEOs and politicians everywhere. Walk and talk. Talk and walk. Were he a TV character, he’d be in a show like “The West Wing,” forever moving down hallways, always conveying trajectory.

But after many strides, here is Rohr, a decade into his tenure at the helm of PNC, a tough-minded, number-crunching banker halted in the middle of a windowless hallway just off a parking garage with something to say. From the look on his face, it’s important.

He has been talking about life’s path, about where it can carry you and where you can carry it—not an unimportant topic to a guy who lost his father at age 10 and watched his mother struggle mightily to keep things above water and afford his education. Rohr looks his conversation companion dead in the eye.  “You’re lucky,” he says. “I’m lucky. We’re lucky.”

He pauses to let it sink in. “Not everybody’s lucky,” says the man who runs PNC Bank. “That’s where values come in.”

Then Jim Rohr, Pittsburgh Magazine’s 2011 Pittsburgher of the Year, starts walking again.

It would be easy to call James E. Rohr, chairman and CEO of The PNC Financial Services Group, a powerful captain of industry and leave it at that. We’ve had a long line of those in Pittsburgh—guys with names like Carnegie, Mellon, Heinz and Frick who built companies and changed the world.

Rohr is, after all, running one of the country’s largest regional banking systems and has been since the beginning of the century. He’s steering PNC through the choppy waters of a global financial crisis, troubling unemployment rates and a sense among some of the citizenry that those guys in dark suits running the banks make too much money and might not always have our best interests at heart.

For a decade, Rohr has been not only the captain of one of Pittsburgh’s most influential companies but a leader of the region itself. As chairman of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, he helped revitalize its economic-growth mission. He chaired the Pittsburgh 250 Commission and was instrumental in the renovation of Point State Park. While leading the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, he helped spearhead the growth of the Cultural District. He has been consistently active in the Boy Scouts of America, both regionally and nationally. And in 2011, he joined the likes of Buzz Aldrin, Billy Graham and Condoleezza Rice as a recipient of the Horatio Alger Award, which honors people who have worked their way up through the world to great success.

Wouldn’t Rohr fit the cliché, then? The one about the top dog who gets it all done and doesn’t ask questions? That’s what we revere in America, what our frontier and cinematic history has conditioned us to seek out: The guy who blows in from out of town (cue Wild West flute music), gains the community’s trust and delivers it from its travails.

But that’s not Rohr, who did, in fact, blow in from out of town—in 1972 at age 24 from his native Cleveland via the Fort Pitt Tunnel.

Sure, decisive is part of his toolkit; those around him will attest to that. But listen to Rohr talk for a few moments. Listen to how he talks. The cliché falls away, and you’ll see that in a nation where rugged individual leadership is revered, this is in fact a builder of consensus—an intuitive man who sees that it’s not just about maneuvering the whole. It’s about understanding the pieces and how they fit together.

Exhibit A: the steel industry. For so many years it defined Pittsburgh in most every respect, from the way people earned money to how they saw themselves. When it declined in the 1980s, the economic picture of the region began to resemble the topography and culture—a patchwork of challenges and possibilities, each with its own character and its own set of obstacles.

Rohr, 63, and his wife of 40 years, Sharon, have three children, Julie, Kristen and Jim Jr., and five grandchildren in the community. He believes that to understand Pittsburgh—and do business successfully here—one must understand the pieces of that collage.

“People said, ‘It’ll never be the same. The mills will never be back.’ I heard that through the ’90s,” he says.

But other industries emerged. Pittsburgh burnished its already robust health-care chops and developed its tech chops, its research and hospitality chops, even its movie-industry chops. Our reputation became more multifaceted. Folks started talking about the short commutes, the ability to balance work and life, the affordable real estate, the arts, the North Shore, the Cultural District. PNC financed some parts of this revitalization and helped encourage others. Rohr got involved.

During the 21st century’s first decade, Pittsburgh’s reputation spread. Fewer visitors said, “Wow—I expected soot and dirt.” More Pirates fans began walking across the Clemente Bridge from PNC Park into downtown after a game. The individual pieces of Pittsburgh started looking more attractive.

“Then people said, This is pretty great,’” Rohr says. Finally, in 2009, came the G-20 Summit—the moment when, Rohr says, “I believe Pittsburghers changed their minds about Pittsburgh.”

 

In many ways, PNC’s growth has been inextricably linked to the city’s. Under Rohr, PNC has grown into the country’s sixth-largest deposit holder, helped by the $5.6 billion acquisition of Cleveland-based National City Bank in 2008. The transition was completed last year, and now PNC has more than 2,500 branches from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi. It is also in the middle of a transaction that will expand its retail-banking reach well into the Southeast. By March, PNC will have 55,000 employees systemwide. And in 2010, The Banker magazine named PNC its U.S. Bank of the Year.

PNC holds 50 percent of the bank market share in Pittsburgh, is one of the largest employers in the region and dumps an estimated $1.7 billion into the regional economy each year.
Rohr started in Pittsburgh National Bank’s management-development program and worked his way up. Yet data about what makes Rohr tick is harder to obtain.

His bio offers clues: Grandson of an immigrant from Alsace-Lorraine, did his first work at his father’s “fish house” in Cleveland, grew up during an economic downturn that deeply affected his mother. But Rohr does not tend to reflect about himself. Ask him for micro (“What are the parts of PNC that are the most important to you personally? What are your favorite places to go around town?”), and he’ll ignore you and go macro (“People work hard here.” “We live our values.”)

After a while, you start to look around his 30th-floor office to get a sense of the man. Just as you think a stack of books on his desk might be giving you a clue (Lords of Finance, Great by Choice), a plush-toy version of The Count from Sesame Street sitting a few feet away throws you off track.

It’s the same thing with Rohr’s words. Just as you’re noticing that every question becomes a big-picture musing, you realize his style of answer says something itself: Jim Rohr doesn’t think everything’s necessarily about Jim Rohr.

Rohr listens a lot. He asks questions. He waits for the answers. Even when he’s serving up PNC boilerplate, you get the sense he believes deeply in what he’s saying.

In this region, that kind of stuff is necessary. Rohr the Pittsburgher—how he fits into the community where he lives, where the bank he leads is such a part of life’s fabric for so many—must not only appear genuine but actually be so. Because if there’s one thing people in Pittsburgh have, it’s a nose for authenticity.

 

Rohr’s path has not been without bumps. As a new CEO in 1998, he faced heavy criticism after regulators targeted PNC for accounting problems a decade ago. Stock prices fell. The company ended up paying fines, restating its 2001 earnings and accepting federal oversight for a time. Rohr, colleagues say, took responsibility. Some in the industry speculated PNC might be vulnerable to a takeover and that Rohr might have to leave. A decade later, neither has happened.

In 2007, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review pronounced Rohr “the new face of American corporatism” and criticized him about PNC’s acceptance of public money for the development of Firstside Center. For a while, in a recurring feature dubbed the “Jim Rohr box,” the paper admonished him daily.

PNC’s largely successful 2008 National City takeover produced bits of strife, too. The takeover didn’t go over well with some in Ohio, who accused Rohr and PNC of opportunism. And on the other end of the spectrum, Rohr upset some shareholders last year when, amid costs associated with the takeover, PNC cut dividends to make sure it had enough cash handy during difficult times.

And the Pittsburgh branch of Occupy Wall Street staged some protests at PNC locations throughout last fall, though it hasn’t taken aim at the company in the way financial institutions have been targeted elsewhere.

Through good and bad, though, Rohr has consistently won praise from allies and critics alike for being reasonable, engaged and willing to consider the other guy’s point of view.

“Underlying Jim’s thinking is that in order to sustain a business entity you have to maintain integrity,” says David J. Malone, chairman of the Greater Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce and the president and CEO of Pittsburgh-based Gateway Financial. “You can make gains short-term by taking advantage of people and situations. But to sustain over the long haul, you have to maintain your integrity. I don’t think he wakes up and says, `I’ll do what’s right and I’ll make more money.’ He wakes up and does what’s right, and then PNC makes more money.”

Joseph C. Guyaux, the president of PNC and one of Rohr’s key deputies, recounts with some surprise an interlude that he says illustrates his boss’s openness to dissenting voices.

Earlier this year, when Bank of America started charging for the use of debit cards in certain transactions, PNC was expected to follow. “I don’t think we should do it,” Guyaux recalls saying. “The customer didn’t do anything, and it looks like we’re penalizing them.”

Rohr listened and PNC backed off. Lo and behold, other banks turned away from debit card fees. “My sense,” Guyaux says, “is that at other companies, somebody in my position is told, `You will go to a debit-card fee.’”

Over and over, people who watch Rohr say he blends that typical CEO’s oomph with a collaborative sensibility. To him, they say, leadership means channeling the constituencies and not always assuming you’re the smartest guy in the room.

“Once upon a time in Pittsburgh, a few political leaders and corporate guys could sit around and decide what the whole community should do,” says Grant Oliphant, president and CEO of The Pittsburgh Foundation. “Today, that doesn’t work. They have to know how to work in concert with other people and how to bring along members of the community.”

Oliphant sees Rohr as an antidote to the “superhero CEO”—a strong presence who can make things happen but, just as important, “doesn’t abuse that power by assuming that the rest of the community should bend to his will.”

“Even the strongest of leaders needs an understanding of the complexities of community and the levers you have to pull to make things happen,” Oliphant says. “Jim is absolutely expert at understanding how to bring others along and how to connect his vision to theirs.”

A 21st-century philosophy? Maybe. But maybe not. “No man will make a great leader who wants to do it all himself or get all the credit for doing it,” a notable Pittsburgher once said.

Andrew Carnegie, actually.

 

How do you encourage a particular kind of culture in a multistate, multifaceted financial-services company? And how do you encourage it to reflect, gently, the regional culture of the place where the company is based?

PNC, like many banking conglomerates, is an amalgam of more than a century of mergers and acquisitions dating to 1852. But its most direct spiritual predecessor is Pittsburgh National Bank, at whose branches many Pittsburghers opened their first savings accounts when they were children. Maintaining that community feel in an era when many people’s only bank teller is an automatic one would seem daunting.

Let’s pick up with Rohr again in that PNC Plaza basement, where he has just invoked values. He had been talking about community, which—along with shareholders, employees and customers—is one of the four main constituencies PNC identifies in its values statement.

Though its community efforts and philanthropies are varied (and often left to regional leaders who understand their communities better than headquarters), Rohr has focused much of PNC’s energy on a $100 million, decade-long effort called “Grow Up Great” in partnership with Sesame Workshop, which helps children under age 5 prepare for a strong education and life. Last year, PNC announced the second phase of its Grow Up Great initiative, extending the program another 10 years and committing an additional $250 million to early education.

Employees have been given time to work on Grow Up Great. Teachers have been trained—75,000 of them across PNC’s reach—with a focus on science, math and the arts. Fourteen science centers have been built. PNC’s 100 most senior executives go out and volunteer themselves. Their boss does, too. In fact, he was the first.

For his first volunteer work in 2004, Rohr went up to Hill House in the Hill District. They had a little chair set up for him, and the children were arranged in a circle around him.

“He said ‘No—I’ll get on the floor with the children,’” recalls Eva Blum, chairwoman and president of The PNC Foundation, which directs Grow Up Great.

But the children can’t see the book. Rohr beckons them closer. They crowd in. He reads the book and, when he finishes, the head of the region’s biggest banking system says this: “I think we need a group hug.”

“All the kids piled on top of him,” Blum recalls. “And he just howled.”

Rohr also collaborates with Rosita, who is—no other way to put it here—a turquoise, Spanish-speaking Muppet. Sometimes, when he has spoken at conferences about early childhood development, Rosita pops up and they do a routine.

“How many CEOs in this country would do that to make a point?” Blum muses.

Going green is also a favorite Rohr topic. PNC spends a lot of money and time demonstrating its commitment to green architecture. Last year, Rohr announced plans for the Tower at PNC Plaza, about which he likes to rhapsodize. When it opens in 2015, it will, he asserts, be the world’s largest green skyrise. Corporate philanthropy and responsibility are neither new nor particularly unusual, but sticking with them these days—particularly at PNC’s levels—suggests that in a tight period, Rohr is committed to making sure his company’s links to the community remain strong.

That’s what Rohr says his team members—and their teams, and their teams’ teams, all the way to your branch’s teller—are pursuing as the company grows: the notion that local intimacy matters. PNC corporate culture, mixed and baked at home in Pittsburgh, infusing a banking empire to its edges—another piece of the puzzle.

“I have observed the civic and philanthropic scene in Pittsburgh, and during that time, I’ve seen so many CEOs who showed interest in the whole scene. But I’ve never seen anyone who equals Jim,” says Henry Hillman. “He’s not only informed and supportive, but he shows up. He gets there in person. This isn’t just a casual ‘throw money at things and forget about it.’ He’s a naturally concerned person who doesn’t have a big ego. He sees himself as part of the whole thing, a contributor.”

 

It’s mid-afternoon at the Children’s Museum on the North Side. An event launching the Breathe Project, an initiative to make Pittsburgh’s air cleaner, has just ended. PNC is a sponsor and Jim Rohr is there, fresh from speaking. Now he is walking and talking, talking and walking.

As he strides through the lobby, he accumulates people. They start walking behind him, then accelerate as if they’ve just pulled onto a Parkway West on-ramp. Finally they catch up, say hello and have their brief audiences.

As Rohr fields five separate supplicants, no less a personage than Franco Harris—among the most recognizable of our community’s living icons—walks out another door, unaccompanied and unpursued.

Afterward, riding back to One PNC Plaza, Rohr reflects on leadership’s trajectory.

“When you join a company, in the early days you try to differentiate yourself. It’s your thing that you do,” he says. The next job, you’re overseeing four or five people, “but you can still impact things yourself.” The next job is bigger, and “you may or may not be able to move the numbers yourself.” But then comes the step when you cross the river completely.

“There’s a realization that your success is totally dependent on the success of the people you’re responsible for,” he says. “You go from a player to a player-coach to a coach. It’s an evolution. And some people never make it. Some people don’t want to. You can’t keep doing it by yourself. If you think it’s up to one guy, it’s not going to happen.”

Many people—pieces of the puzzle, each adding something. And a leader who harnesses them. Like the community in which he exists, Rohr is a mosaic of different leaders we’ve known. There’s a bit of Carnegie (the philanthropic, driven titan), a dash of Rooney (the ethical winner), a liberal sprinkling of Fred Rogers (commitment to the kids), perhaps even a hint of Caliguiri (perseverance through transitional times). And, of course, all that he has added on his own.

Maybe that’s what any leader does. At first you emulate, then—slowly—you construct your own mosaic, built not just from predecessors but from your experiences, from everything that’s processed through your individual prism. And, to hear Rohr tell it, from values, too—the things that the lucky among us do to help the less lucky get luckier.

By the time you’re Rohr’s age, you come to recognize: No one big cinematic thing is the path to success. Instead, the road is paved with tiny victories. As a leader, you amplify and guide them. Traveling the hills and valleys, you encounter something new each day—something you help shape or something you leave alone, realizing that it’s been there all along and is doing just fine.

Which, come to think of it, sounds a lot like Pittsburgh itself.

*

Pittsburgh native Ted Anthony, a veteran writer and editor, has reported from more than 20 countries and 47 U.S. states. He lives in Allison Park.

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