Maybe it was easier for Jean McDonnell to learn to play golf than it is for most women. Growing up in Springfield with three brothers, she says, “I’ve always been competitive in sports with the guys.”

The opportunity to try golf arose almost 10 years ago when McDonnell, now vice president and commercial lending officer at New Millennium Bank in New Brunswick, worked for the private client group at her previous bank. “We were required to learn to play golf for customer contact;” she says, “and I was the only woman on the sales team.” Used to playing with boys, she was enthusiastic; after all, the bank was paying for the lessons.

McDonnell is serving as co-chair for the sponsorship committee for the annual ICREW (Industrial Commercial Real Estate Women) Golf Classic to benefit Play For P.I.N.K. (Prevention, Immediate diagnosis, New technology, Knowledge) Breast Cancer Research. The event takes place on Thursday, May 8, at 10 a.m. at Forsgate Country Club in Monroe Township. For information, contact Laura Garofalo at lgarofalo@humanscale.com.

McDonnell moved to the New Millennium Bank a year ago December when two former colleagues sold her on the idea of a small bank. “I think you have to be of a certain temperament to work in a small bank,” she says. “They are very service oriented. They do sales but more of relationship building.”

As a commercial real estate lender, McDonnell says business is good right now — interest rates are very low and people with equity or buildings paid off are looking to make purchases.

Because McDonnell works in business development, she is expected to entertain customers and clients, and golf provides a great opportunity — especially when so many organizations use it as a fundraiser. Golfing offers threefold benefits, she says — networking opportunities, camaraderie, and philanthropy.

Men have never felt like they had to justify their golf games, she says. If they were out with a client, that was all the justification they needed. “We haven’t brought ourselves to that point,” she says of herself and female compatriots, who still worry about the undone work back at the office.

But McDonnell has begun to see change as more women are watching the game. “Men had this closed up for years, and women are just coming in,” she says. “But now women are starting to say, ‘It’s part of my job; I’ll go out and do it.’”

For McDonnell, it’s a great way to spend uninterrupted time with a client, a potential client, or simply someone who may be able to turn business her way. “I like the fact that you can have a captive audience for 18 holes,” she says, “when you can be building a relationship with someone.”

But relationships don’t just happen; they require a little planning:

Design who you want to play with at a golf outing. Don’t leave to chance who your partners are going to be. “When you sign up for an outing,” says McDonnell, “either invite someone or, if you’re coming in cold, ask to be matched up with a CPA or an attorney.”

McDonnell’s bank sponsored a United Way golf benefit at Jasna Polana, and she put together a team that included a financial person, a CPA, an insurance person, and herself. “It was a good mix; it got everybody talking about the same things,” she says. “All those people can share potential business with one another.”

Identify yourself clearly. “When you introduce yourself and say what do,” says McDonnell, “it’s worse than being a doctor at cocktail party — you’re captive.”

Be aware of golfing etiquette. “When you’re networking,” she says, “be mindful.” Then she rattles off several rules: You shouldn’t be talking while someone is hitting the ball. Stand behind whoever is hitting. Stay on the cart path. When you’re going to putt, be sure not to walk in front of someone else’s line (that is, the line between someone’s ball and the hole) and disrupt the grade. If your ball is near another one, mark the spot, and move your ball away.

Wear proper golf attire. “The dress code is important,” she says. If shorts are allowed, make sure the length is within regulation. Collared shirts are most appropriate, although mock turtlenecks are allowed. But no halters, t-shirts, denims, jeans, gym shorts. Avoid anything that people might be wearing in a film that satirizes golf, she advises.

McDonnell has had a lot of success following these simple rules. Last year at a benefit for the family resource center at the First Baptist Community Development Corporation, she was the only woman at the whole outing and was matched up with an attorney from Metuchen and the owner of a marketing business.

This outing used a scramble format, where all the players tee off and the best initial drive determines where everyone starts on the next drive. “It makes the game go quicker and allows for more conversation,” says McDonnell. “You’re doing something everyone enjoys, and by the fifth hole, you start talking business.”

The conversation with the lawyer that day went like this:

Lawyer: “So what kind of banking do you do?

McDonnell: “Commercial real estate. What kind of law do you do?”

Lawyer: “Lots of estate planning, and there’s often real estate involved when I need to sell off something or refinance.”

McDonnell: “Here’s my card; let me know if there’s something I can do.”

Two months later she got a call from him. One of the buildings in an estate he was handling was all paid off, and the family wanted to refinance. “I got a $575,000 mortgage out of that outing,” says McDonnell.

The other guy turned out to be a former banker, with lots of contacts in North Jersey. He gave McDonnell’s contact information to people who worked with smaller banks, and she got a call from someone with an $11 million deal, whose lending limit was $8 million. McDonnell handled the other $3 million as a participating bank.

“You meet people, build a relationship, and see what happens,” she says, adding that of course you follow up as you would in any kind of networking situation. At one golf outing she had met an environmental engineer, and she called him two weeks ago because one of the companies she works with had an environmental issue.

As a kid, McDonnell was very athletic. She did recreational skiing and played hardball with the boys before it was fashionable.

At Union County College, where McDonnell worked and attended school simultaneously, she played on one of the first women’s basketball teams. After two years she moved to Fairleigh-Dickinson University, where she studied business administration and ended up with a degree in finance in 1986.

Both of McDonnell’s parents are mechanical engineers educated in Newark; her father studied at the New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark and her mother at Rutgers. She worked as a draftsman for a couple of years, until she had children.

McDonnell figured she didn’t have the money to go to medical school, which she had wanted to do for awhile. But then she started to get really interested in accounting. “I liked finding the real-life solutions to problems,” she says. That led her into lending, but she also began to realize how much she liked to be out with people. “I didn’t know at the time that I was a salesperson,” she says. But she did know she had to find a way to bring in the social piece, to combine left and right brain.

So she went into branch banking, where she handled the whole gamut — lending, operations, sales, and business development — all at once, even though the separate functions are now generally split. She worked from 1973 to 1992 as an “old-time, traditional bank manager” at National State Bank in Elizabeth, which became Wachovia.

In 1992 she moved to a small regional bank to develop business with clients who had only commercial real estate loans — cross-selling the bank’s services for what was called an orphan loan portfolio.

Through a merger and the elimination of the business development piece of commercial real estate, McDonnell was able to move to the wealth management group, where she continued to work as relationship manager with private banking clients.

In 2001 she left banking completely due to downsizing and began teaching as an adjunct for Kean University and Union County College, working with a group that brought college into industry. She did a three-year stint at General Motors, where she taught assembly-line workers about business planning, career planning, volunteering and also helped with the GED program. She also taught sales training and supervisory training through Union County College.

She feels that her biggest accomplishment at General Motors was to help a 68-year-old man to complete the GED program in time to get a high-school diploma at his 50th high-school reunion. They managed to get his original high school to issue him a diploma.

While at General Motors she also worked with 900 UAW employees who were in the job bank, waiting to see if they would be called back to work. McDonnell and her business partner wrote and presented three motivational seminars for the General Motors Job Bank Employees, in which they participated in games while learning about the rights and responsibilities of a volunteer. “We got them to participate in a three-hour motivational learning experience.”

This sparked the idea of writing for educational programs and became L&M Learning Series, which writes and sells programs to colleges, universities, and private industry. Its customers included Union County College, Kean University, and Debtco. L&M wrote courses for a consortium of six printing companies, behavior-change learning modules for managing money and credit cards for a company in San Diego, and seven learning modules for behavior change in spending for Debtco (now Fresh Start America), which is a mandatory course for all of their clients.

Between 2001 and 2006 McDonnell served as treasurer for the National Council of Women at the United Nations, an NGO (non-government organization) formed by early feminists like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

In her role as a member of the sponsorship committee for ICREW, McDonnell is doing what she can to increase the number of women who use golfing to network the way men do. She sent E-mails to all her women contacts about the upcoming golfing event; two have already signed up.

Just as women have moved from competition to mutual support and increased trust, McDonnell has seen an evolution in golf. “I’m seeing that this sport is evolving into more of a collaborative mission to raise money,” she says. “I truly believe that people who are getting into this and learning to play are finding that is very good medium for communication and raising money.”

McDonnell is waiting for a female Tiger Woods to rev up this generation to become fans of golf, figuring that playing will follow. “Once we get a woman out there who really your knocks socks off and when the media gets in there and really supports that golfer as a phenomenon,” says McDonnell, “that’s when we will see more women play.”

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