KeyBank CEO Beth E. Mooney discusses bitcoin and the housing boom during Puget Sound visit

With more than 12-dozen KeyBank branches statewide, the bank’s Chairman and CEO, Beth E. Mooney, travels to Washington state a couple times each year. A visit to the Pacific Northwest — and the Puget Sound region, specifically — is a trip she enjoys and anticipates.

“There’s just nothing like it — all the cranes, all the activity, the energy — you can just see different parts of town starting to come to life,” Mooney, who lives in Ohio, where KeyBank is headquartered, observed during a visit to Seattle in April. “It’s not only a great economic market, but there’s just a lifestyle and a vibrancy here that is infectious. And not to mention, it’s beautiful.”

Mooney’s most recent visit to our region was occasioned by the bank’s decision to donate $1.9 million to a swath of organizations, such as the University of Washington, FareStart, El Centro de la Raza, and many others.

A veteran banker with more than 35 years in the industry, Mooney joined KeyCorp, the bank’s parent company, in 2006; was named president and joined the board of directors four years later; and was appointed company chairman and CEO in 2011. The achievement made her the first female CEO of a top-20 bank in the United States and earned her a spot on Fortune’s list of the Top 50 Most Powerful Women in Business, and Forbes’ list of the World’s 100 Most Powerful Women.

Mooney spoke to 425 Business while she visited FareStart in downtown Seattle.

425 BUSINESS: The residential real estate market in this area has seen record sale prices, as well as increased competition among homebuyers. How has KeyBank responded?

BETH E. MOONEY: We exited the mortgage business before the financial crisis, which turned out to be one of those lucky (and) good decisions. We have been rebuilding that capability and, literally in the last year, we have gone back into the mortgage business.

This is an incredibly attractive market for us because, as you said, talk about a red-hot housing demand and housing prices, and it is a core need of every customer. When we look at places where we think we can really impact and meet customer needs, this is a huge one.

If you bid on a house, you’ve got to be ready to go and, half the time, you have to bid more than the asking price. Part of what we are trying to do in this market is make sure that we work with our customers to get them prequalified. This is (about) really helping people understand what they can afford, and to get them pre-qualified so they can bid with confidence and increase the likelihood that they are going to win. Putting them into a smooth process where they can close (in a) timely (fashion) has been a huge focus of ours.

425 BUSINESS: Washington state has legalized the regulated sale of cannabis. Yet, one challenge facing business owners involves banking and finance due to the federal government’s view that marijuana is an illegal drug. Are you following this issue?

MOONEY: We are a federally chartered bank. We follow the federally chartered laws. Obviously, for states that have made moves toward legalizing marijuana, there is a disconnect between state law, the rules surrounding money, cash-based businesses, and federally chartered banks. There is no universe where, as a federally chartered bank, you don’t stick within the federal laws.

425 BUSINESS: Would KeyBank like to see the federal law change and get into this line of business?

MOONEY: I don’t have a view on that, in part (because) I live in Ohio, where it isn’t (legal). But my reaction is that we will follow the law of the land. These are business interests that aren’t necessarily top of our list of what we would be advocating for or lobbying for. We are far more interested in banking regulations, for example.

425 BUSINESS: What are your thoughts on Bitcoin and other forms of cryptocurrency?

MOONEY: It is clear that it is not yet an established business-as-usual-type currency. One thing about a medium of exchange is that it needs to be convenient, it needs to be safe, it needs to be secured, it needs to be certain in its value. It is clear that — particularly if you look at just the last six months — it is volatile (and) not yet mature. I think there will be a time and place where blockchain technology and cryptocurrencies will become more mainstream. I don’t think we are there yet.

425 BUSINESS: When you visit the Puget Sound region, what are your impressions of the area?

MOONEY: When I go to New York and investment analysts ask me about our footprint, they say, “Why the West?” I always tell them that these markets are incredibly dynamic. They are diverse. The demographics are highly attractive compared to what we have in the East, which is far more mature, manufacturing-based.

Different kinds of economies come here. This is young, it’s technology, it’s diverse, it’s growing. I look to the West as our growth markets that balance our Eastern portfolio and Midwestern portfolio, which is more (about) slow growth, but where we are large and very established. If you think of portfolio diversification, I love coming out here. I think these are great markets for KeyBank.