EagleBank CEO Susan Riel On Regional Banking and CRE Lending in 2024

The rare female banking chief also talks about mentoring more women to fill management roles.

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Decades ago, Susan Riel’s husband had a chance to relocate to the West Coast. But Riel wanted to stay within driving distance of her close-knit family of seven siblings in Brooklyn. The resulting compromise has kept the couple in the Washington, D.C., region for 50 years. 

Twenty-one of those years have been spent at EagleBank, more than five of those now as chief executive officer and president — with Riel as the first woman to hold the roles. When she was appointed to the positions, in fact, it was a message from one of her six granddaughters that truly validated the benefits of having decided to plant roots in the mid-Atlantic. 

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“When I became the president and CEO, one of my granddaughters said, ‘Wow, Grandma, that means I could be a president.’ That meant a lot. And if I could do that for my grandchildren, I can help other women too,” said Riel, who has worked in the banking world for the past 47 years. “I have supported women, and I’ve helped them and mentored them, and many of them I’ve seen grow, and that’s the give-back that to me at my age and my tenure in this business is more important than almost anything.”

Before arriving at EagleBank as it was forming into a regional bank in the late 1990s, Riel was  executive vice president of Columbia First Bank prior to First Union Bancorp (now Wells Fargo) acquiring it in 1995. In addition to steering EagleBank’s growth as a commercial real estate lender since assuming the role of chief operating officer and executive vice president in 1998, Riel has mentored many women also seeking to advance into banking leadership roles in a historically male-dominated profession.

Riel spoke with Commercial Observer in late February about climbing the corporate ladder of CRE banking as a woman, changes she is implementing at EagleBank’s business model in the midst of challenging lending conditions, her outlook on the future of the D.C. area, and how the regional banking system is positioned in a higher interest rate environment. 

The interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Commercial Observer: Where did you grow up, and what was your path into the commercial real estate side of banking?

Susan Riel: I grew up in Brooklyn. I come from an Irish-Italian Catholic family: seven children, six girls and one boy, and my brother is the youngest and absolutely the apple of my eye still. I was married at age 24 — which in today’s standard is a little early — but I’m still married to the same gentleman. My husband grew up in rural New Jersey and he didn’t want to live in the city, so I knew before we got married that we would be moving outside of the city. He wanted to move to San Francisco because he had done some training there and absolutely loved it, but it was just entirely too far for me because I needed to be able to get home to visit my family when I needed it, or if they needed it, so it had to be within driving distance for me. So we looked in an area that we could drive back home on a weekend. The first year that I lived in the D.C. area, I went home at least once a month. 

I had worked part time for a bank when I was in New York and I wanted to get back into banking. I had also worked for what was then Dean Witter and now is Morgan Stanley, but I wanted to get back into banking. 

Prior to arriving at EagleBank in 1998 you spent 18 years with Signet Bank and Columbia First Bank before they were acquired by Wells Fargo. What drove the move to EagleBank?

The bank I was with was sold, and my daughter at that time was a senior in high school and I wanted to spend time with her. The founders of EagleBank were talking to the chief legal officer that I had worked with about bringing someone in who could run a mortgage division. The chief legal officer recommended they call me, and I met with them but I in no way wanted to run a mortgage division. I told them I would help them find people because I did have experience in that. 

One conversation led to another conversation, and I did join Eagle, and I headed up the operational areas. Ultimately, we brought in a mortgage group and I had that responsibility, but that was after awhile. I have been with Eagle from before the bank launched, and it will be 26 years in March.

How has it been to see a bank grow from its founding? 

When I came in I thought this would be easier than what I had experienced because it was a start-up. I was absolutely wrong. There were a lot of things that you had to do to get set up with all the procedures and policies and contractors. There were so many things in all the hiring of the staff, and I wore many hats because we started with 20 people and opened three branches right away. 

We had a very small lending group with four lenders, so it was challenging but very rewarding. I remember the first note that we closed. It was very exciting and very challenging, and I loved it. I had the chance to work with very good people. Eagle has had a lot of challenges over the years, and we’ve gotten through those challenges together.

Describe what it was like rising through the ranks as a woman in your career. How are conditions now in CRE banking compared to when you first entered the industry? 

Now in CRE banking you see a lot of women, and, when you go to the [D.C. Bankers Association] meetings, there are a lot of women there. That was not the way it was in the beginning — there weren’t a lot of women in banking. My Eagle experience has been  wonderful because I had a very supportive CEO who encouraged the development of women and allowed me to help develop and encourage other women. 

I have been fortunate in my career in that I’ve only actually looked for one position, and that was when I first moved to the D.C region. After that I was referred or moved with the chairman and the owners, so I’ve been given a blessing to be honest. I had one gentleman I worked for for 18 years, and every time there was a problem in the bank he would say, “Go look at this problem and see what you could do to fix it,” so I had the opportunity to explore all areas of the bank whether it was in operations or in lending or even the investor side. I had progressive managers that allowed that to happen and didn’t think of me as male or female. They saw the talent that I had and gave me that opportunity. 

There were also a couple people I worked for who were very difficult managers, but I had a good relationship with them. I think they saw the benefits of women in leadership positions and recognized that I had those skills, and so they were able to help me and give me the opportunities. I’ve been blessed, and paying that back is important. So I would say that I believe that the best people to be put in positions should be the people put in positions. But often women are the best people and they’re often not looked at in that light, so I think I can bring more of that focus to them. I think the industry — and, in general, people — are seeing that women leaders are often more effective. 

You’re planning this year to “revolutionize” EagleBank’s CRE strategy. What changes are you planning and what was the impetus?

EagleBank has been known as a CRE bank as that’s how we started. We’ve been successful and a high performer because of that focus. We don’t ever want to lose that because we have expertise in that area and we are recognized in this industry and market for that expertise. 

But what we want now is to enhance that. We are skilled in the commercial and industrial [C&I] loan market also, so we want to grow that business, which will allow us to diversify on some of the deposits that we have and will also allow us to increase the fee income because that’s what a C&I business does. We’re also looking at enhancing the consumer as we have a consumer part of our book, but not a strong part. The consumers that we have primarily have been people walking into our branches or business owners that bring their personal accounts and their employees’ accounts to us. We will be looking at enhancing that and moving into a digital presence. 

We don’t want to lose CRE. There are certainly challenges, but we have a strong team of very seasoned people that know the CRE market. We have one gentleman who has been in the CRE market for over 50 years. When things started to become a problem and when it was obvious to us that there were issues, we immediately pulled that team together. That team is strong, and we will get through this. There will be challenges, but we’ll get through them. 

I’m proud of the team that we have and proud of how we formed through some very challenging times.

Speaking of challenging times, how was EagleBank’s lending portfolio positioned before the Federal Reserve began its aggressive interest rate hikes in early 2022? 

I think we were positioned well, but we were already thinking of expanding and enhancing that model then because, again, the CRE model has helped us and made us high-performing, and we did well for 25 years. But everything is changing, and we had to diversify and we needed to have stickier deposits. We had already recognized that we needed to begin to change our business model — not lose sight of what made us Eagle and made us the bank we are today, but enhance that with the other areas. 

Growing in the digital space is something that is new for us and it’s new for a lot of banks, but some banks have been in it for a while. So we just launched our digital expansion. We went in quietly so we’re not really active in it right now, but we have been working on it over the last 12 or 18 months so we’re looking at bringing in some good deposits. We knew we needed to change — or what I prefer to call “enhance our model.”

What types of loans are you originating now?

In the market right now, with the high interest rates, you don’t have many people wanting to pay those rates. There are some that do, and in instances where we have a customer relationship and they are asking us to do something we do whatever we can. We started the bank with a “relationship first” culture, and we will never lose that. 

You have been a very active lender in the Washington, D.C., market. How do you see the region shaping up in a post-COVID world given there are many office vacancies in the nation’s capital and many businesses looking toward the suburbs? 

The entire D.C.-Maryland-Northern Virginia region is a strong market. The inner city in particular is struggling, and a lot of that is due to the fact that the government has a third of the office leases and the federal government is not bringing people back to work. The D.C government has announced that they’ll be bringing people back four days a week. The federal government, although they have tried to do that, are fighting unions. 

The suburbs are flourishing and you could not get a better market than Northern Virginia, and we are recognized in that area. We did an acquisition of Virginia Heritage Bank back in 2014 to get our name in the Virginia market and we also have the naming rights for George Mason University with EagleBank Arena, so that gets us a lot of publicity, too. Virginia was a hard market to break into and it took us a long time, but we are a strong competitor in the Virginia market, and in Maryland and D.C as well. 

But there’s lots of growth opportunities, and the political environment in Virginia is more pro business than the political environment in Maryland.

How do you view the overall health of the regional banking system after last year’s collapse of three banks and the struggles of New York Community Bank in early 2024?

I think that there were a lot of things that happened with Silicon Valley Bank that none of us really know, and they made some big mistakes that caused a ripple throughout the industry. The government is the government, and were they part of that? We lost significant deposits during that time, but I will say our team once again pulled together and we’ve worked through that. 

I am very proud to say that the deposits we lost were more than recovered at the end of 2023, so we were back in a good position. But we struggled with the regional banking crisis like many did at that time. The industry still has not totally recovered from it.

Have you seen a lot of regional bank competitors retreat since interest rates began going up

I think we’re all seeing that. The big banks have stopped lending and it’s the regional banks that are still lending, but cautiously lending. If the borrowers don’t need the money, they’re not looking for it because the interest rates are so high. Now they’re talking about bringing those interest rates down, but I also heard about the possibility of an increase in them, so who knows? No one has a crystal ball, and we will have to just manage through whatever is happening.

To close on a lighter note, what do you enjoy doing outside of work

Family. I’m fortunate that I have five children, with three of them within 30 minutes of where I live. One is in Charlotte, which is an hour and half flight, and the other lives 30 minutes from a beach house that I have in Delaware. So I spend whatever time I can with my children, but I’m also involved in outside activities. 

Eagle is very connected in this community. Our lending team, and even outside of the lending team, does a lot of things out in the community. Eagle has always been recognized for all of that. 

Andrew Coen can be reached at acoen@commercialobserver.com