Priscilla Sims Brown was leading marketing and corporate affairs for Commonwealth Bank in Australia when she got a call from a recruiter about a job in the spring of 2021.
The opportunity — becoming the CEO of New York-based Amalgamated Bank — was “irresistible” to her, she said. The bank’s story, from its founding 100 years ago by the leaders of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers in America union, resonated with Brown. “Amalgamated started as a bank for immigrants who couldn’t get banked. It’s a story of innovation born of necessity — much like my life story,” she said.
Brown’s journey to Amalgamated — and her career in financial services — began more than 30 years in San Francisco. In the late 1970s, she was working for a local television station and produced a show called “Inside Today’s Economy.” The show was sponsored by Sutro Financial, a boutique regional retail and institutional stock brokerage firm. The firm’s chair and CEO were frequent guests on the show, and Brown would pick their brains to better understand the market. Impressed by her intelligence, one of them persuaded Brown to join Sutro.
“He told me that I was never going to make much money in journalism, and besides telling stories, don’t you want to be involved in making them happen?” she recalled.
The chair took her under his wing and Brown would follow him on his rounds while he talked to his colleagues about Sutro’s business. “I learned by listening to him and then listening to the others. There’s nothing like working side by side with a mentor to really learn about a business,” she said.
A few years earlier, after her adopted mother died in 1976, Brown began searching for her genetic parents. She knew that they were Ethiopian, and that her mother had held some kind of government position under Emperor Haile Selassie. She spent nearly four years chasing leads and repeatedly calling the State Department before she uncovered the name and number of someone who might have information about her parents. She called the number and three days later, she received a call from her birth mother.
It turned out that Brown’s mother is Marte Gabre-Tsadik, the first woman senator in Ethiopia. She and her husband, Demeke Tekle-Wold, fled the country in 1974 after Selassie was overthrown by a military junta. Brown’s parents settled in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and her father started a parachute manufacturing business in order to support a nonprofit the two founded in 1977. At the time, Ethiopia and the surrounding African countries were undergoing a terrible drought, and Project Mercy provided food and clothing to Ethiopians who were suffering. Since then, the nonprofit’s mission has grown, and the organization has built a hospital, an elementary school and a health sciences college.
Brown moved to Chicago in 1981 to work as a retail stockbroker for Paine Webber, and to be closer to her parents. Over the next five years — and throughout her career — she used some of her earnings to support the mission of Project Mercy and to sponsor Ethiopian children by bringing them to the U.S.
She left Paine Webber in 1986 for a management position at then-Equitable Life Insurance leading the sale of securities products in one of Equitable’s largest agencies, with over 400 producers. In 1991, she moved to Indiana and started working for Lincoln National Investment Management Company, the asset management arm of the Lincoln Financial Group (LFG), a multiline insurance company. Brown established a profit center, partnering with Lincoln Reinsurance, which was LFG’s largest company and the largest reinsurer in the world at that time. This helped the reinsurer’s small insurance clients by offering asset management and asset-liability matching services.
Brown later started a family of mutual funds at LFG. The family included nine fund choices and four classes of shares: a class of shares designed for insurance companies and three other classes for consumers.
She became president of the broker-dealer in 1995, and grew this business to $5 billion.
Amalgamated started as a bank for immigrants who couldn’t get banked. It’s a story of innovation born of necessity — much like my life story.
Priscilla Sims Brown, president and CEO of Amalgamated Bank
After a series of divestitures and acquisitions in the 1990s, Lincoln evolved from a multiline insurer to a focused financial services firm, and began to offer more business-to-consumer products. The firm’s corporate center moved from the Midwest to Philadelphia in 1999, and Brown took on new responsibilities, including investor relations, and then became the chief marketing officer.
She left Lincoln in 2009 to become the marketing chief and chief strategist at Sun Life, a financial services company, where she negotiated and managed Sun Life Stadium naming rights, Pro Bowl, Super Bowl and other major events with the Miami Dolphins.
Although Brown’s parents had moved back to Ethiopia in 1992, Brown continued to stay involved in Project Mercy and served on its board of directors.
Brown next served as head of marketing at AmeriHealth/Caritas from 2013 to 2014, where she developed a new go-to-market strategy for the largest Blue Cross/Blue Shield Medicaid company in response to the Affordable Care Act, and then spent the next two years at AXA U.S. as its marketing chief, leading all aspects of U.S. marketing and global digital marketing initiatives.
In 2019, she got a call from the CEO of Commonwealth Bank, the largest bank in Australia. At the time, the big banks in the country, including Commonwealth and Westpac Banking Corp., were under investigation by the Royal Commission, a public inquiry, for fee gouging, fraud, predatory sales tactics and deception.
“I had been hearing about the challenges for the banking industry in Australia, and I found it very interesting that Commonwealth had distinguished itself by handling the situation much differently than anyone else,” Brown said.
Brown moved to Australia as a group executive for marketing and corporate affairs. She was in charge of marketing, branding, stakeholder insights and ESG. That year, following a severe drought, Australia experienced the worst bushfires in the country’s history. The experience shook Brown.
“It’s a country that’s wealth was driven by fossil fuel. And as a result, it was suffering the effects of climate in a way that was much more extreme than most places,” she said.”And so I thought about climate change quite a lot, and it didn’t look like we were, as a world, solving it. And so I became really consumed by it.”
When she got the call from the recruiter about the CEO job at Amalgamated, Brown had been following the news about the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers and the protests that ensued.
“Watching it from afar, you got a real sense of urgency,” she said.
And the more she researched about the now $7.7 billion-asset bank, which puts a premium on economic, social, racial and environmental justice causes, the more she became convinced this was the right move. “The opportunity to address all of this was irresistible,” she said.
On June 1, 2021, Brown became the CEO of the country’s largest B corporation bank. One of the social issues Amalgamated has taken the lead on is gun safety. Before Brown joined, Amalgamated had filed a petition with the International Standards Organization for a new merchant category code for gun and ammo stores. “Nail salons and shoeshine stands all have merchant category codes, but not gun stores? Mass shootings are getting worse, and we, as the industry, were a passive player in this,” she said.
After three years of petitioning the ISO to act on it, in September, a code for gun retailers was finally approved. The change drew the ire of some conservatives, including a group of Republican senators who wrote to Brown accusing her of infringing on Americans’ constitutional rights.
“If you want to change gun policy, you should run for office and make yourself accountable to voters,” the September letter, which was signed by Sens. Tom Cotton and Mitch McConnell, among others, stated. “What’s worse, these actions weren’t enough for you, so you set your sights on forcing these radical and discriminatory policies on the entire financial system.”
But Brown seemed unfazed by the pushback, and argued that the change helps banks to enforce the law.
“The new code will allow banks to comply with our duty to report suspicious activity and illegal gun sales to authorities without blocking or impeding legal gun sales,” she said.
A few months into her tenure, Brown added a chief sustainability officer, and Brown has increased the bank’s funding for climate solutions from about 23% of the loan portfolio to 31%. She has also overseen the development and release of the bank’s aggressive net-zero report, which details a deliberate road map complete with specific, science-based targets, to achieve net-zero emissions by 2045.
When the Supreme Court revoked the constitutional right to get an abortion, Brown publicly stated that Amalgamated would reimburse travel and other costs for women employees’ reproductive health care needs.
“This is a workplace equity issue,” she said on CNBC. “We’ve taken a terrible step back for half of America’s workforce.”
Overall, Brown said, the bank “continues to live up to the standards set by these textile workers when they really first started the bank, which is to make sure that we care about workers’ rights, gender, race, and all forms of economic justice.”
Brown has taken a sabbatical from her board positions at Project Mercy and at TIAA, where she served on the investment, governance and corporate and social responsibility committees, to focus solely on the bank.
“The idea of helping people to reach parity on their own — not in a way that’s condescending or demeaning, but in a way that really lifts people up and gives them the ability to realize their own potential — that’s the basis upon which Project Mercy has been successful for 45 years, and why Amalgamated has been successful over twice as many years,” Brown said.