Eight at the Top
Career insights of some of Alabama’s highest paid women executives
Key players for Hibbett Sporting Goods: Cathy Pryor (left), senior vice president of operations, and Becky Jones, senior vice president of merchandising/marketing.
Photo by Caroline Baird Summers
If you asked Alabama’s top executive women at public companies whether as young girls they dreamed of being where they are today, you wouldn’t get “yes” for an answer.
They say they didn’t plan to become highly paid executives. Instead, they pursued their interests and rose through the corporate ranks via a combination of drive, hard work and smarts. As women, they often juggled their roles as mother and wife with the demands of their work life.
Dexanne Clohan, M.D., chief medical officer for HealthSouth and mother of two adopted sons, for example, says, “Had you told me in college that I would be doing what I am today, I wouldn’t have believed you. I would have thought, ‘No way!’ I was the one who took a general science for non-science majors course to fulfill my science requirement.”
Initiative and certain other personality traits, however, seem to have set Clohan and her peers apart, enabling their success. Even in their early careers, these women sought ways to improve their companies’ operations as a whole rather than just fulfilling their job responsibilities. Jo Ann Hall, executive vice president and chief operations officer for Auburn National Bancorporation Inc., notes, “I’ve always thought it’s important to look at the bigger picture.”
Hall and the other leaders were prone to take on diverse challenges to increase their experience and knowledge. Many of them attracted mentors who recognized their talent and helped encourage their careers efforts. Now these women are energized by fostering their own winning staff members.
Debbie Long, executive vice president, secretary and general counsel for Birmingham-based insurance heavyweight Protective Life Corp., advises would-be business leaders, “It’s very doubtful that someone’s going to come to you early in your career and say ‘I want to be your mentor.’ It’s far more likely you will meet people along the way who will give you great advice if you are open to receiving it. Someone at a cocktail party might say something that could change your life.”
Expect to change course
Making bold career moves and taking calculated risks also are common traits in this power group. Several of these exceptional women began their schooling in areas that might not at first glance seem conducive to becoming a top corporate executive. They were, however, able to use that education as a career springboard.
Cathy Pryor, senior vice president of operations for Hibbett Sporting Goods, attended Clemson University on a volleyball scholarship and majored in parks and recreation management. She didn’t consider a career in retail until a friend mentioned an opportunity at Robby’s Sporting Goods Inc. in Atlanta, Ga. “I could see the potential, and once I started working for them, I found retail to be a natural fit,” Pryor says.
Since joining Hibbett in 1988 as a district manager, Pryor has seen the company grow from 28 to 800 stores. Pryor believes her sports background has been an advantage throughout her career because athletics instilled principals of discipline, teamwork and integrity. “No matter how large Hibbett grows, it’s still our team members who are key to our success. My job is to keep them motivated and focused on our goals and objectives,” she says.
Clohan experienced an even more unlikely career transition. First she majored in social sciences at the University of Colorado as an undergraduate. Then she earned her master’s degree in administration from The George Washington University and became a lobbyist for the American Medical Association. There she became enamored with medicine and, although she was in her early 30s, she decided to take prerequisite classes for medical school. She was accepted into The George Washington University School of Medicine.
Move readily on opportunity
After earning her medical degree and specializing in physical medicine and rehabilitation, Clohan was hired both for clinical and administrative work. While working as the associate medical director of Memorial Independent Practice Association, she used diplomacy to convince physicians in all specialties to reduce unneeded tests and cut waste. “I didn’t tell them what to do, I just asked them to help me understand why they were ordering certain tests,” she says.
Clohan served as medical director for several major healthcare management organizations before joining HealthSouth, the nation’s largest owner and operator of inpatient rehabilitation hospitals, with facilities located in 27 states across the country and in Puerto Rico.
Although Long, of Protective Life, knew she wanted to be a lawyer early on, at first thought she wanted to be “a save the world kind of lawyer.” After clerking for a federal judge, she was invited to join a private law firm. “Although I hadn’t initially wanted to practice business law, I found I loved it,” she says.
When several of the firm’s members left to establish Maynard Cooper and Gale, Long went with them. She worked with a number of financial industry clients of the firm, including Protective Life. In 1994, Protective Life asked her to come on board as their general counsel. Maynard Cooper supported her transition, allowing her to take the new job on while continuing with the law firm for a time. “It was a wonderful opportunity,” Long says.
Stay hungry for challenge
Even the top executive women who planned for a business career found their particular industry almost by happenstance. Becky Jones, senior vice president of merchandising/marketing at Hibbett Sporting Goods, for instance, was a business major at Arkansas Tech University, unsure of which career track to pursue.
To help pay her bills and get some work experience as a student, Jones took a part-time job at Walmart. The store manager soon recognized her abilities. “He told me ‘regardless of whether you stay at Walmart, I see you in retail,’ and gave me all kinds of learning opportunities,” Jones says. After graduation, she went through Walmart management training and quickly worked her way up in management there, at Fred Meyer Stores Inc. and Jo Ann Fabric and Craft Stores Inc. She joined Hibbett in 2009 and soon was promoted to senior vice president. “I kept seeking new challenges, because I wanted to make a significant impact wherever I worked,” Jones says.
Another business major was Cheryl Levy, chief human resources officer for HealthSouth, who received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Alabama. Levy started working in human resources in the retail and publishing industries, then had the opportunity to work in human resources at a California hospital, where there were three active unions. “It sounded like a position that would challenge me and expand my expertise,” she says. “I took on a variety of positions in human resources during my early years, some of them lateral moves, because I knew they would be learning experiences.”
Later, when HealthSouth began its reinvention, following the Richard Scrushy fraud scandal, Levy was asked to come aboard to help rebuild the company. “When opportunity comes knocking, take advantage of it,” she says.
Cynthia Rogers, senior executive vice president, operations and technology group at Regions Financial Corp., majored in accounting at Auburn University. During that era, the emphasis was working at one of the big national accounting firms. But, as an Auburn University senior, Rogers was offered an internship in the auditing department of First National Bank of Birmingham, a legacy company to Regions. “While working there, I realized that everybody has a banking relationship. Banking touches every industry,” she says.
Because of her interest and abilities, Rogers was hired on at the bank after graduating. She spent the next three decades with Regions or its predecessor banks, working in internal auditing, then branching out to various other bank functions. “I love my family, I really do, but I am so fortunate also to have a job I absolutely love,” she says.
Create your own team
Carolyn Johnson, executive vice president and chief operating officer with Protective Life Corp., was unusual among her peers in that she was certain from an early age she wanted to enter the insurance industry. “I’m the only person I know who went to college planning to work in insurance. Several of my family members had been in the business,” she says. After earning a bachelor’s degree in business administration from California State University, Johnson held a number of positions with major life insurance companies. “During the early 1980s,
I had the chance to work with new and different distribution systems and got involved with operations and technology,” she says.
Johnson joined Protective Life in 2004 and has continued to rise up the corporate ladder. She applauds her team for helping keep the company on track. “The challenge of leadership is balancing a number of areas. You’ve got to create a structure and set priorities for your team, but then you’ve got to allow them the freedom to get the work done,” she says.
Hall, of Auburn National Bancorporation, didn’t earn a college degree before starting her career. During the early 1970s, she was serving as the office manager for a retail store, when one of her coworkers, who’d recently taken a position at a bank, called. The friend encouraged Hall to apply for a job opening in the loan department, which she did.
After Hall’s husband got a job in Opelika, Hall visited Auburn National Bank to put in an application. The bank president, who just seemed to be a bank customer chatting with her as she filled out her application, hired her on the spot. “I guess it was a good thing that I didn’t know who he was because I would have been so nervous, I probably would not have been able to talk to him,” Hall says.
During the following decades, Hall worked her way up through the ranks to become one of the bank’s top corporate officers. When she began her career, banking was relatively simple and low tech, but as it became more complicated, driven by compliance issues and technology, Hall changed with the times. She grew with the bank as it expanded from one location to 13 and from $25 million to $744 million in assets. “I’ve always had a strong work ethic, but I’ve also been fortunate to work with five great bank presidents who encouraged my advancement,” Hall says.
Kathy Hagood is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. She lives in Birmingham.