Assessing Risks

Susan Janson of Live Oak Bank on her banking career

Jansen0002 Story

SUSAN JANSON likens her duties as Live Oak Bank’s chief risk officer to those of being a parent.

“Your role as a parent is to provide information to your children and help them understand (exceeding) boundaries could get them into difficulty,” she explains. “They have to inch into it. You continue to gather information about what might benefit or harm them and continue to communicate that to them.”

And so it is with banking, Janson says. For example, some members of her team of about 15 people are constantly on the alert for cyber-security-related vulnerabilities: hacking.

“Part of my team works really hard to make sure all the gates are there. We have others we have to work with, such as vendors. Do we know enough about them? Do they have enough gates so we don’t harm our customers?”

The bank must perform in a way that assures regulators, auditors, and other stakeholders that its decisions and operations are appropriate and secure, Janson adds.

And then there is the risk of fraud.

“The reality of what COVID has brought through government subsidy programs is that people are hacking in and committing fraud, whether it’s applying for small business subsidies when they do not own a business, or it’s applying for assistance they don’t qualify for,” she says. “We’re constantly looking for any of those things to ensure as much protection as possible.”

The government wanted to make it as easy as possible for financially stressed small businesses to apply for subsidy loans, Janson explains, but officials knew that would make it easy for fraudsters to game the system.

“The government has been, for loans and other benefit packages, on alert, watching for this,” she says. And so has her team, especially since Live Oak Bank was a major lender through the Paycheck Protection Program.

The scope of Janson’s job has increased since she first walked in the door of Live Oak Bank two-and-a-half years ago.

“This organization is more than a living and breathing organism; we’re growth-oriented,” she says. “As we are broadening the scope of services we provide, there is much more dimension to it. The people in my unit have deep knowledge of the areas they are involved in. I try to keep them all speaking with each other so they have an appreciation of what we’re trying to accomplish. Much of what we do is like looking at a puzzle.”

And Janson likes solving puzzles. In her leisure time, she relaxes with jigsaw, word, and number puzzles.

The pieces of her professional background came together to make her a good candidate for the risk position at Live Oak.

“Friends of mine will tell you I don’t change jobs, I change careers,” Janson says with a laugh. “I never intended to go into banking.”

Janson’s first job was doing collections for a telephone company. She then trained as an optician and bought out her boss after two weeks on the job before even learning how to make glasses (she did learn, and ran a successful optical business for seven years).

The next “career” was as an executive secretary at a mortgage company. That evolved into a management job in which she created a customer service division.

She went to work for the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency – a department within the U.S. Department of the Treasury – and then was wooed by one of the banks she worked with to come and create its brokerage unit.

She moved to another financial institution to launch its investment banking arm. From there, she went to the FDIC, where she served as senior markets and securities specialist, leading regulatory risk assessments for financial institutions. Live Oak hired her away from the FDIC.

“I believe in being very open to opportunity and being willing to listen,” she says. “I trust my decisions when I come to a crossroads. What I bring [to Live Oak] is a compilation of bits and pieces of what I developed through those other roles: dealing with customers, selling, motivating, identifying issues, and knowing how to listen and pull all the pieces together.”

Janson’s personal life also involves pulling disparate pieces together. Their grown sons have demanding jobs in sales. She and her husband share homes in Wilmington and in Florida they have built together.

“We live in both,” she says. “My husband is here a couple of weeks a month; I try to get down there at least one week a month. I wanted to have roots here and build a community here so (I) could understand what I can give to the community. It’s important to feel you belong, and roots are needed for that.”

From the very beginning of their marriage, Janson says, her husband has been “incredibly supportive” of her career.

“We are proud of each other. One’s success is the other’s success.”


To view more of photographer Terah Wilson’s work, go to terahwilson.com.

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Categories: Women to Watch