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Job spotlight: Ashley Hawthorne, store manager of a Wells Fargo branch

It's a classic case of starting at the bottom and working your way up the career ladder.

For Ashley Hawthorne, her ascension to manager of the Wells Fargo bank on Whittlesey Boulevard at Columbus Park Crossing has been just that, but in fairly rapid fashion.

Fresh out of Columbus High School, at age 18, she landed a job at Southtrust Bank as a roving teller, bouncing from branch to branch when needed. That led to a position as a front-line banker, helping customers who walk in the door with various financial needs.

Finally, she received the opportunity to manage the Wells Fargo branch in Smiths Station, Ala., before being promoted to the Columbus Park store going on two years ago.

Did we mention that Hawthorne, a Phenix City resident, is only 27 years old? Asked about her rise up the ranks at such a young age, she chuckles, then responds, "I have an old spirit."

Jumping into the banking industry during such a tumultuous economic time may have helped Hawthorne grow up fast in the banking world. After all, she's watched Southtrust get gobbled up by Wachovia and Wachovia bought out by Wells Fargo.

Today, she manages a staff of 14 at the Columbus Park branch, which includes tellers, a service manager (assistant manager), bankers or financial specialists, and a financial adviser position she is looking to fill at some point.

The Ledger-Enquirer talked with Hawthorne recently to get a feel for her job, what it entails and where it may lead her in her career. lists a median national salary of $53,372 for a bank branch manager.

You started out as a teller at age 18. Why did you stick with it?

I just really loved it. I enjoyed working with customers. I enjoy working with people. I really got a great appreciation for all of the financial pieces that go into banking, and everything we do to help succeed financially from a teller line standpoint.

I knew that this was the career path I wanted to take. I did move up very young through the company, but I was very ambitious and driven. I feel like when you really have passion for something, you don't even see the work you're putting in because it's rewarding.

What has it been like witnessing the changes, including the various acquisitions, in the banking sector?

Everything went very smoothly with all of the changes. Fortunately, it seems like with each change, with each different bank, the opportunity was just so much greater. When we went from Southtrust to Wachovia, we went to a lot larger bank, which opened up more products and financial services that we could offer our customers, which in turn leads to more opportunities for us to grow and develop ourselves. That's when I was able to become a banker.

Then when Wells Fargo came in, that was just a huge add from a career standpoint, as well as a customer standpoint. With Wells Fargo, it was so eye-opening to see the insurance products, the mortgage products. They have every chain of financial products to make people successful, and we could do it all within the company.

So it's great to hitch your wagon to a bank that weathered the Great Recession very well?

We hitched it to a stagecoach, not a wagon. (laughs)

Just what does a bank manager do?

Everything. My duties change from day to day. Our main focus is doing whatever we need to do to make our store successful by making our customers happy and making them succeed financially. But the banks have weathered a lot. The customers have weathered a lot.

Every day, I start out meeting with my team. My main focus is making sure my employees stay educated on the financial products that we have, what we can do to help the customers succeed. We make sure they stay on top of what's going on in the economy, what they could be questioned about that day to make sure that we can keep our customers educated as well.

It's also obviously making sure that we're staffed properly, that our tellers are coming in ready every day with smiles on their faces. Our main priority is truly customer excellence. As the store manager, my role is to make sure everything runs smoothly from 9 to 5:05 or 6:05, and that every customer walks out of here happy. If that happens, we've had a good day.

You're not behind a desk all day long?

Absolutely not. I could not have this job if I stayed behind a desk. I'm a very high energy person.

Obviously, as in any management job, I do have paperwork and that kind of thing to do. But for at least three to four hours each day, I try to keep myself available. I'm in the lobby. Anytime a customer comes in and has a problem, or if we're doing a financial review to see what we can do to help them grow their financial future with us, I go in on every customer interaction that I can.

If we're short on the teller line or get extremely busy back there, I'll go greet customers. I can't run transactions, but I do whatever I can to help. I'm just kind of the jack of all trades. Fortunately, I have moved up through the channels, so I do know the job roles. I can step in and help wherever needed.

What's the most challenging thing about your job?

The biggest challenge I face in the job right now is (understanding) we're not in a picture-perfect financial economic situation. So I have to keep my tellers, as well as my bankers, educated and on top of everything that's going on in the economy that we're going to be questioned about.

Customers are going to have fears because there's a tax increase and they're missing an extra $50 out of their paycheck. Or what if a certain bill passes? There's so much going on that we get questioned about.

It's really about what can we do as a company and as a brand to help them overcome these challenges. They look to us as financial experts. We have to be able to solve their problems, and some of these problems are not easy to solve.

I'm on Whittlesey Boulevard and if you work at the restaurant next door and you come into the bank and ask your banker about something going on financially and they don't know, that's a problem.

The recent increase in the Social Security tax prompted questions from customers?

That's a perfect example. We have customers coming in telling the bankers they were saving $50 every two weeks on their paycheck. But now they've lost the $50 because of the Social Security tax hike, and they want to close out their savings.

We don't want the customers to close out their savings because, ultimately, to help them succeed we want them to keep saving. So we see what alternative we can offer them, by thinking outside the box, to help them keep their savings. Those things are challenging.

What's the most rewarding aspect of your job?

There are two things. As a manager, a lot of my job is career development. Coming from the teller line, as I did, and going up through the channels and learning so much, it's so rewarding to me when I see someone come here as an employee and move up and be a great representative for this company and be a successful banker.

And then, obviously, it's about helping our customers. I have customers that have followed me all nine years that I've been with this company, from every branch that I've worked at.

So you get to know folks pretty well and there are special moments you share?

Yes. A parent can bring their 16-year-old in when they have their first job and we open their first checking account. The teen gets the starter account product where the parent can help them, but it's also their account so they can learn how to be financially stable before they turn 18 and they're on their own.

They come in here with their first check and their parents are taking a picture of them with their first debit card. Those are rewarding moments because we're really making life-changing events. We just gave this person their first checking account from their first job.

For those interested in pursuing a job such as yours, what types of skills are needed?

Preferably they would start in another job role -- a banker or even a teller -- because you do have to be able to fill in those gaps when you have someone out (of the office). But, most importantly, you have to absolutely love customer service. You have to know the financial industry. And you just have to be a very driven person.

A desire to get out in the community and become involved also is needed?

Absolutely. We are very active in the community. Twice a year we do the community volunteer day, where almost every one of our employees is out volunteering. There was one time we had the Heart Walk that morning and House of Heroes going on that day.

We have a table at most every community event that's going on. I was at the Taste of the Town to benefit March of Dimes this year. I was at the Breast Care Awareness luncheon that benefits breast care research. It is rewarding to be able to be a part of those activities.

I was actually the captain of the House of Heroes Phenix City house this year, and I had my 89-year-old grandfather present a flag to the lady whose house that we did. My grandfather's a World War II vet and was one of the ones that went on an honor flight. There were about 40 employees of Wells Fargo there when that moment happened, and there was not one person who wasn't in tears. So we do give back a lot to the community and it's great to work for a company that does that.

What would be the next step for your career?

There's a lot of avenues. I am licensed, so I could go into a financial adviser role. I'm kind of fortunate because I'm young and I'm getting into the groove here. Right now I enjoy this, and I'm still learning.

When that's over, potentially, I do hope to be a district manager one day. But I'm not quite there yet.