When Susan Nystrom joined Comerica Bank in late 2004 as in-house counsel, she not only changed how the role functioned at the bank but also helped transform the its legal culture.
“At the time, in-house counsel was expected to stay at their desks,” she recalls. “I believe I cannot manage litigation successfully unless I can eyeball the judge and see outside counsel in operation.”
Nystrom proved the effectiveness of her method when she traveled from the bank’s Michigan offices to Arizona for a trial and quickly learned that outside counsel’s depiction of the case status was far too rosy. “The judge on this case treated our outside counsel with disdain and didn’t like the bank either, so I knew right away, as much as the law and facts were on our side, we needed to get this thing settled.”
She convinced her boss to let her remain on the ground and see the case through to the end— and was ultimately successful. “Within a year, when we had a new case, he would ask, ‘Oh, you’re going to be there, aren’t you?’ I would send him real-time reports on what was going on, which of course he loved because he could go right into the CEO’s office and say, ‘Susan’s telling me X, Y, and Z.’ It really worked out well.” This practice also reduces much-hated “surprises” and keeps need-to-know officers involved.
Nystrom also had her hand in another major transformation for Comerica. She was in California when twenty-six bank employees left en masse at the conclusion of business one Friday, with the intention of stealing away business.
The litigation-averse bank went on the offense. Comerica didn’t have noncompete clauses at the time because it believed people should be free to move. This was different, however. The bank’s IT group immediately saw that the former employees had taken Comerica’s business continuity plan, strategic plan, and list of all employees and customers. Nystrom and her legal team used this wrongful conduct as a means to take aggressive action to protect the bank’s employees and clients. The bank quickly sought and secured a temporary restraining order (TRO) and preliminary injunction.
“Long story short, we recovered $47 million—the highest recovery in the bank’s history—in eighteen months’ time,” she says. “The defendants wanted to settle. Some of our executives would have been happy with a $20 million settlement. My position was different. I said, ‘They should pay us what they would have had to pay had they bought the business.’
They had been in the press talking down our stock. Our employees were concerned about whether we would fight for them and protect them. Our clients were concerned about whether we would protect them and their privacy. I wanted to make sure that people understood who Comerica is, that we stand behind our employees and protect our clients and their private information.”
Nystrom grew up mediating conflicts among her competitive siblings as the middle child in a family of eight, so resolving issues is second nature to her. She finds it easy to fight for Comerica because she knows it’s not an institution; it’s composed of individuals and shareholders.
“I wanted to make sure that people understood who Comerica is, that we stand behind our employees and protect our clients and their private information.”
“I had a rheumatologist who was nearing retirement and owned our bank stock, so I always kept him in mind every time I had a case,” she says. “I realized he’s an investor, a shareholder, so I have a duty to him. It may seem to be a small thing, but in my mind, it’s a big thing, because he was relying on us at the bank to make the right decisions to protect his money.”
Nystrom is especially proud of how Comerica protected its shareholders by deflecting the big bank bailout of 2008. Like virtually every bank at the time, Comerica was pushed to accept Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) money from the government to prevent public hostility toward the banks that required it. This strategy also let the banks pour that money into the community and the economy, which is exactly what Comerica did. But as soon as it was allowed to repay the TARP loan, Comerica handed the money right back.
“Comerica has successfully navigated turbulent economic times for more than 170 years with a conservative approach and ability to avoid risk,” she says. “We want our clients to be successful, and we’ll work with them. We don’t recklessly risk our shareholders’ or depositors’ money.”
It’s Comerica’s commitment to integrity that continues to drive Nystrom. “I personally have to always be guided by my own integrity. The court has to trust my integrity, and my colleagues have to rely on my integrity,” she says. “And when I know that I’ve helped my colleagues and made their work easier or they’re sleeping better at night because of something I did, that keeps me going.”