It is difficult to resist smiling as Susan Blackburn’s effervescent energy circulates the air. This shimmer comes after a long journey to uncover what she calls the “next chapter” of her life, and her excitement over turning that page is quite infectious.
As a Tampa native, Blackburn has a deep appreciation for this region that resonates in her commitment to her clients at Freedom Bank, where she is the president and chief operating officer. It took a lot of energy and effort to make her way to the top of the banking industry, but now, Blackburn can step back and appreciate the view.
Now, this accomplished banker has a whole host of new adventures awaiting her as she continues to find balance in her work and home life, taking pride in the diverse blended family she’s acquired. In this GRAVITAS interview, Blackburn discusses her childhood in a pre-urbanized Gulf Coast Florida, the challenges she faced early on in banking, and what she’s doing to stay present in every moment.
Tell me a little bit about your childhood. You grew up in Pinellas County?
I did. Our family moved down here when I was 1, and my sister was 2. We both had so much fun then. Since we grew up when the area was still very much underdeveloped, we felt like explorers. We spent a lot of time at the beach or on the boat. We’d take the boat to explore the marshes of the bayou. Sundays were always family day: My parents would put us in the car, and my sister and I could pick whichever direction we wanted to drive in, and that’s the direction the family would explore. As a family, we uncovered Florida in the most magnificent way. Since then, I’ve never wanted to leave.
What did you want to be when you were a little girl?
I wanted to be a movie star! Who wants to be a banker when you’re 5 or 10 years old? I thought that life was going to be an oyster, and I would just be the pearl. Then I was struck by reality and realized that my mind works very analytically. So I went into banking when I was very young and fell in love with the concept of helping people. And that’s really how I look at my job today. I feel that as a banker, you’re not just a banker, but you take on the persona of whatever company or whichever customer you’re helping. Your focus is specifically on their needs, and that evolves into a relationship where everyone wins. I get the benefit of learning about all different types of businesses. At the end of the day, my gratification comes from understanding that I have been able to help someone else fulfill his or her dream.
When did you start in banking?
I was 18 years old and fresh out of high school. At that time, I was going to school at night and filing the checks in the backroom during the day. That’s when nothing was automated, and you really just sat there and looked at each individual check that came through the bank at night and put it in a slot. It was the most mindless work, and I realized that it was not for me.
People soon realized that I had a bit of a gift of gab, so they put me in front of the customers. Candidly, I’ve never been a teller. I was always on the customer service side of the business. I got into branch managing, marketing, as well as the sales and operational side of the house. Really, I look at myself as a leader of others. My career has taken me in directions that I would have never imagined.
As a woman, what are some different qualities you bring to the table, and how would you describe your leadership style?
First off, to be a woman, particularly going back 30-some years, you really had to differentiate yourself and stand out by being smart, working hard, being eager and then some. You really had to take it to the limit in order to get noticed. It’s that work ethic that has helped me evolve my career. I don’t think I ever would have been as successful just being smart. You had to be the total package.
Today, I really see my role as developing other people in the industry and to help foster that next generation of bankers. Even though I’m a mentor to many young women, I also mentor several men who are at a different point in their career and wish to understand how to be at the top of the game. I’ll tell you, the top of game is an exciting place to be. I never want to “fall off” my game, but to get here it’s a long hike, and you just can’t have too many missteps.
How old were you when you first had children?
My son was born when I was 23, and my daughter at 25. I can remember many a night working late. They were under my desk with crayons and coloring books, and I was giving them vanilla wafers so that my boss wouldn’t see them. I mean, we got creative back then. I can remember missing an air flight and thinking, “Oh, I’m not going to be able to make it to cheerleading practice.”
It was a real challenge to find a balance. I have learned that life itself is a balance, and at any given time, the priority takes precedence. As a single mom, there were many times when work had to take that priority because that was how I could adequately provide for my children. In turn, I felt I was a role model for my children and could show them that with hard work and commitment, you can do whatever you desire.
You had a second marriage and a blended family. Tell me a little bit about that story.
Well, I can’t imagine anyone in a blended family that wouldn’t sit back and say, “Wow! That was fun, and it came with its own set of challenges.” When you take people from different backgrounds, cultures and philosophies and blend them all into one family, there are going to be some challenges. We think we did a great job at it, and at the end of the day we’re a very loving family. But in those teenage years and those growing up years, we were all learning. The outcome was a group of people who maybe didn’t start out together, but we sure are finishing together.
Now, you’re starting a new chapter in your life.
I am. You know, the last few years have taught me that today is the very most important place you can be. Before I experienced watching my spouse become ill and then pass away, I was always so goal-driven. I used my history to define who I was and then set my sights on the course to where I was going. And so, sometimes living in the present was secondary. What I’ve learned today, that the goal is to ask myself: Am I happy? Am I nice and kind? Am I doing what I need to be doing today?
This way, I’m not so worried about where I need to be tomorrow. I find that if I do everything I need to do today, then when I wake up in the morning the next day I’ll think to myself, “I’ve got this.” That experience has definitely given me a different perspective. I’m enjoying myself more in the moment.
My husband and I were together for quite some time; we were married for over 25 years. I had the joy of being able to leave nothing unsaid. We were very much at peace with the direction of where our lives were going, and I am truly blessed for that.
You recently bought a condo and moved over to South Tampa. Tell us a little bit about that.
I can’t even believe that at 57 years old I’m living on my own for the first time ever, and it’s so much fun! I had no idea that you could come through the fire and still have the desire to experience new things. I moved from a community that I had been living in for 50-some years and bought my first place all on my own. I know that makes it sound like I’m a kid, but at this age, it was exciting. I sold a lot of my possessions and went out to find some new things.
Sometimes I sit and look around and go, “Who lives here? Whose house is this? Where’s all my stuff?” But what I think will happen in this next chapter is that with my children, my grandchildren, my friends, we will create a new set of memories. That house will soon have a heart—that’s what I’m excited for.
Living in a different city gives me a different landscape to look at. I love to get up and run down Bayshore. Every day I see something that I didn’t see before, and I find it so energizing and exciting. As I’ve said, I don’t know where I’m heading, but I know I’m going to have a good time getting there—that is a quote my daughter gave me a long time ago.
Do you have a bucket list?
I have a short bucket list that I’ve just come up with. I’ve decided it’s appropriate for a person who has lived in one area for 57 years. I am a Florida girl, and I’ll always call this my home, as it’s where I would like to spend most of my time, but I’ve decided that I need to have new experiences. So, I have decided that when I retire in the far distant future, I am going to live in four cities.
I’ve picked them: I’m going to live in Manhattan in the springtime. In the summer, I will live on Longboat Key. In fall, I’ll live in Tuscany, Italy. And then, my winters just might have to be in Napa.