Taking risks pays off big for former bank leader

'For me, it's a fuller way of looking at how you spend your time.'

By Paul E. Kandarian
Contributing Writer
Merrill W. Sherman knows a few things about banking. In the early 1990s, she was named president, chairman and CEO of Eastland Financial Corp., and was charged with turning that institution around after years of losing money. She did it. More

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BUSINESS WOMEN

Taking risks pays off big for former bank leader

'For me, it's a fuller way of looking at how you spend your time.'

PBN PHOTO/RUPERT WHITELEY
A FULLER LIFE: Never shying away from a challenge, Merrill W. Sherman has had a major impact in Rhode Island’s business scene, as well as in its nonprofit sector.
By Paul E. Kandarian
Contributing Writer
Posted 5/28/12

Merrill W. Sherman knows a few things about banking.

In the early 1990s, she was named president, chairman and CEO of Eastland Financial Corp., and was charged with turning that institution around after years of losing money. She did it.

She was then recruited to serve as president and CEO and as a director at the then-new First National Bank of Vermont, only the second bridge bank ever created by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.

Then in 1996, she co-founded Bank Rhode Island, which through 2011 grew from $450 million to $1.6 billion in assets and became a major player in the Rhode Island commercial-lending scene. In 2010, she was named one of the top 25 most-powerful women in banking by American Banker Magazine.

Imagine what she could have done had she started out as a banker and not a lawyer.

“At the end of the day, I probably should have gone to business school and not law school,” Sherman said with a laugh. “I really liked making business decisions and supervising execution and making sure you put steps in place to make sure something gets done.”

A lot has gotten done in Sherman’s years in banking, and for her efforts, she has earned the Career Achievement award in Providence Business News’ 2012 Business Women program, an honor she finds “very flattering, and humbling, but there are so many people who contributed” to her earning it, she said.

Sherman, 62, grew up on Long Island, and then moved with her family to Colorado, returning to the East for college and law school. She began her banking career as legal counsel to Eastland Financial in 1991. Within six months, she was named to run the business.

“That was the cornerstone of my development,” she said. “I was a partner at a very large, regional law firm and was very comfortable, so there was a big risk of going into a failing institution. But for a variety of reasons, I was in a position to take a risk and willing to do it. I went into Eastland, rolled my sleeves up and started fixing what was a pretty difficult situation.”

She had great mentors there on the board, and overall it was “a terrific experience, and set the stage for everything I did after.”

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