Interview with Rita Rausch, VP and Sr. Sustainability Officer, Comerica Bank

Posted on 01. Nov, 2009 by in Interviews

Comerica Park

Rita Rausch is the Vice President and Senior Sustainability Officer at Comerica Bank. Under her guidance, Comerica has developed a 32-member sustainability council representing managers from all business units.

OG: What are you looking forward to the most about the conference?

Rita: What I’m most interested in is the opportunity to hear people in other industries as well as some in my own, with respect to where they are in the sustainability process. Many North American companies are just now getting started, coming to the table a bit late, and I’d like to know how they’re integrating their initiatives and goals within the corporation, as well as how upper management is viewing the process.

OG: Within banking, who would you name as leaders in sustainability?

Rita: Comerica is a mid-sized bank, with total assets of $60-70 billion. We benchmark ourselves against the mega-banks such as Bank of America, Citibank, and others. We then use the information from that to decide which sustainability initiatives we’ll pursue, what makes the most sense for a bank of our size.

Mainly, we focus on facilities, since that’s where the bulk of our greenhouse gas emissions are coming from. But the banks we benchmark against are now also going into their portfolios and addressing the GHG of companies they invest in. We’re just starting to look into that. Our inaugural Sustainability Report was released in September of this year, and it details where we stand regarding GHG emissions and other Corporate Social Responsibility issues.

OG: What do you think are the most important CSR initiatives for banks?

Rita: at our place in the process, the most important thing is the communities in which we operate. As listed in our CSR report, they are the most important members in our stakeholder group. Through our Comerica Charitable Foundation, we help in a number of ways, including financial literacy and other means to help low-income families become self-sufficient. We didn’t fully recognize until just this year how valuable we really are to small businesses. So, we want to inform shareholders as well as employees about where we’re going and how they can help.

We have a vibrant  small business banking group, to help small businesses, and we’re a preferred lender with the Small Business Alliance. We use that relationship to help the Small Business Alliance better serve small businesses. Also, In May 2009 we reported under the Carbon Disclosure Project for the second time and we were ranked #1 in S&P500 for the quality of our response.

OG: Your Sustainability Report is very clear and detailed.

OG: Can you tell me about how Comerica’s sustainability practice has developed?

Rita: Comerica’s corporate  sustainability office is small, but we’re in the process of developing our strategy. In 2007, we hired Deloitte to help us create this strategy. They were very helpful, and since then we’ve had a group of managers from all business units who work with the sustainability manager. This group has put together a program to integrate sustainability across the company.

So now we have this roughly 32-member sustainability council, with representatives from each of our business units. The council also works with our facilities’ managers, and with business banks, to educate lenders about how to structure loans to encourage and benefit from energy efficiency upgrades. We’ve found that the ROI on energy efficiency upgrades is extremely  rapid.

OG: I’ve heard that from many different sources, ranging from the CEO of Duke Energy calling energy efficiency “the fifth fuel” to a residential solar installation company explaining that many of their customers benefit more from their energy efficiency upgrade services than from buying solar panels.

OG: Particularly in light of the recent credit crisis, what do you think financial institutions should do to improve financial literacy and encourage responsible borrowing?

Rita: at Comerica, we have a lot of investment in communities re financial literacy. We feel it’s important for people to understand that what their bank does has ramifications beyond themselves. Comerica had NO involvement in subprime loans or collateralized debt obligations. We are first and foremost a business bank, with a much smaller consumer practice.

We’re a relationship bank, therefore more interested in keeping customers for the long haul than in just making a quick return. We convey this message through our behavior- We do what we say we will, we’re not looking for the quick fix. Our shareholders also understand the value of long-term investments. They need to be able to pass this stock on to their children.

OG: Is there anything else you’d like to tell the readers?

Rita: We’re interested in hearing how other companies’ governance structures are working- primarily, how they’re getting buy-in from both the C-level and the front lines. I’ve discovered that some of the people who may have started out in opposition of sustainability initiatives often become the biggest supporters, because they’re the ones most willing to listen and try to understand.

Photo Courtesy Joyce Pedersen via Creative Commons License.

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