President, Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland
Sometimes, Sandra Pianalto begins her life story in Valli del Pasubio, her birthplace in the Italian Dolomites. In other tellings, the 55-year-old president and CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland starts with her Introduction to Economics class at the University of Akron.
It always ends in the same place, though: at the innermost circles of local and national economic decision-making.
Pianalto’s job alone makes her one of the most powerful figures in Greater Cleveland. She’s a member of the Federal Reserve Open Market Committee, which sets the cost and availability of the nation’s money and credit.
But where she came from and what she stands for makes her power even greater. She’s one of the most credible, convincing advocates for the idea that Northeast Ohio must shed its old economic loyalties and embrace the knowledge jobs of the future.
Whether she’s addressing economics majors or a chamber of commerce, Pianalto argues in favor of “creative destruction” in the economy. She challenges the common platitudes that tie Ohio’s economic woes to the loss of manufacturing jobs. Too few of the region’s traditional jobs have been shed for renewal and innovation to take root, she argues.
She sometimes cites Seattle’s emergence as a leader in the software and coffee trades, noting the city transition’s came only after it saw steep declines in timber and aerospace.
“I think she’s always trying to challenge the intellectuals in the community to look ahead and say, ‘What’s the next disruptive technology?’ ” says Joe Roman, president and CEO of the Greater Cleveland Partnership, where Pianalto is a board member.
Pianalto has plenty of audiences for her message. Central bankers are elite economists not highly public figures, but she hardly hides away in the Federal Reserve’s fortress-like edifice on Superior Avenue. She’s a fixture in the boardrooms of Northeast Ohio institutions, including The Cleveland Foundation, University Hospitals and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and
“She’s not going to be the most vocal leader, largely because of the structure of her position,” says Roman. “Emotionally and passionately, she’s the most engaged leader I know.”
“Sandy reads everything; she asks questions; she’s engaged,” says Mike Benz, president and CEO United Way of Greater Cleveland, which Pianalto has chaired the past two years. “When she does speak, she’s effective. She’s not just a name on a roster.”
Pianalto joined the Fed in 1983 as an economist in its research department. She rose over the next 20 years to her present perch: top banker for a district that includes Ohio and portions of Pennsylvania, Kentucky and West Virginia. Pianalto is a pipeline between the region’s business leaders and Washington, culling data from the district to inform national monetary policy and returning to engage the area’s leaders with the latest economic thinking.
Former Cleveland mayor Jane Campbell once said those in the know see Pianalto’s climb continuing, that she could become the first female chair of the Federal Reserve System. Even if that doesn’t happen, Pianalto’s ascent from daughter of an immigrant construction worker to central banker has been remarkable.
When she was 5, her parents, who had only elementary schooling, moved the family to the U.S. so their children might be better educated. Her parents struggled to acclimate, but Pianalto learned from them to embrace change and uncertainty and to never underestimate people.
Her story is likely one reason Pianalto frequently argues that Northeast Ohio’s economic future depends on a more highly educated work force.
“You can’t always see the inner energy and talents of the person who scrubs floors or takes your change at a store,” she told John Carroll University graduates during her 2007 commencement speech. “And the children of those individuals may well be powers to be reckoned with tomorrow.”
With a polite approach, analytical mind and strong convictions, Pianalto quickly gains converts — out of respect, not fear, her colleagues say. She brings a full-throttle engagement to delving into a boardroom issue and flipping pancakes at a United Way fundraiser.
Ronn Richard, president and CEO of the Cleveland Foundation, says Pianalto has “an above-the-fray aspect” to her personality.
“There’s never any selfish agenda,” Richard says. “That’s why people listen to her.” Pianalto’s poise is contagious: “When people are in the room with her, they want to be like her.”