When Alex Sink returned to North Carolina after a failed marriage and a three-year stint in West Africa, she threw herself into something just as foreign: the male-dominated world of banking.
Sink rose from lowly branch planner to chief executive of NationsBank Florida — now Bank of America — becoming among the highest-ranking female executives in her field.
"I worked harder and had to be smarter," Sink said of her 26 years at the bank. "I had to be tough and not take 'no' for an answer."
Now Sink, 62, wants to pierce the gender barrier again. This time, to become Florida's first female governor.
"It didn't take me 24 hours to get into the race," Sink
tells her audiences. "I've sat back for the last four years and watched the state that I love fall into an economic abyss."
For Sink, the quest to become Florida's first female governor seems less of a distinction than a natural progression in a life spent crossing divides.
A North Carolina farm girl who doesn't flinch at eating possum, she excelled in the buttoned-up world of the nation's largest banking chain. A Southerner with the argot of the Blue Ridge Mountains, she bridged cultures to succeed in cosmopolitan New York and Miami. A lifelong Democrat, she has earned the loyalty of Republicans.
But her feats in finance have not perfected her political skills.
She's an awkward orator, often stiff on the stump. A trained mathematician, she is sometimes so deliberate and methodical that she appears indecisive. Inherently cautious and risk-averse, Sink is so guarded with the media that she often comes across as evasive.
Those closest to Sink acknowledge that the public side of politics is not her strength.
"Sometimes she's criticized for not having charisma or not being a great public speaker, it's because she has to do that to get her where she needs to be," said Dorothy Sykes, Sink's younger sister. "She's a problem solver. That's what she does. If there's a problem she wants to tackle, she will get out that legal pad and pencil and will start problem-solving."
• • •
Adelaide "Alex'' Sink and her sister Dorothy "Dottie'' Sink are the children of Adelaide Bunker and Kester Sink. The couple married after World War II and inherited the Bunker family homestead in Mount Airy, N.C. The town was the prototype for the famous Andy Griffith Show.
The Bunkers, however, are descendants of the other famous residents — conjoined twins, Chang and Eng Bunker, born in Thailand in 1811. The twins traveled the globe as circus curiosities until settling in Mount Airy, built a tobacco farm, and famously fathered 21 children.
The novelty of her great-grandfather Chang Bunker is a point of pride for Sink, who admires the perseverance and spunk of the odd Asian men who moved to "redneck country'' and were accepted. Instilled in all their children, she said, is the notion that "being different is okay."
That same spirit characterized Sink's mother's very private battle with breast cancer, diagnosed when Sink entered 10th grade. A talented musician who led the junior high school choir, her mother was determined to fight her cancer — and keep it quiet.
She was diagnosed on a Friday, had a double mastectomy on Tuesday and "we kept a secret a secret," Sykes said. "We were not allowed to tell anyone about it so she could lead a normal life."
For Adelaide Sink, Alex's namesake, a significant aspect of that fiercely guarded normal life involved her commitment to politics. As head of the local Democratic women's club, Sink's mother worked the polls every Election Day. In 1964, a year after she was diagnosed with cancer, Adelaide became the Surry County manager for a candidate who would become governor.
Through it all, she underwent experimental treatments of radiation and cobalt, losing her hair, suffering burns and other side effects, but never speaking of her illness.
Kester Sink did what he could to compensate, the sisters say, building a tennis court on the farm, creating a game room for the girls and riding horses every Sunday with Alex.
Sykes recalled that she was the "fun-loving child who was always in trouble," while Alex "always had her head in a book." Alex's idea of fun: heading to the game room with her three high school buddies ''all four of them the smartest kids in the class — to spend Friday night playing bridge."
Their mother died in 1968, when Sink was a freshman at Wake Forest University. The private battle left its bittersweet mark. "It gave us so much strength and such a sense of independence," Sykes said.
At Wake Forest, Sink was a standout, majoring in mathematics and graduating phi beta kappa. She married after college and moved with her young husband to West Africa, where he worked for an oil company and she taught English and math.
"Over the course of three years, it became clear to me, we weren't a good match," Sink recalled. "I wanted a more permanent and stable lifestyle."
They divorced. Sink moved back to Charlotte, where she got a job at North Carolina National Bank. She took evening classes in accounting and won a promotion: "the worst territory they had," she recalls.
She was sent to Texas, Kansas, Oklahoma, Arizona and Colorado and told to "go find business." Most executives she met were men who never expected a woman banker to be smart and qualified, so she made sure she didn't explain who she was when she scheduled appointments.
"I was an oddity," Sink recalls. "So I figured I might as well use being a woman who is named Alex from North Carolina to my advantage."
It paid off.
"Every job we gave her she basically succeeded in, so, like any big business, you go with your winners," said Hugh McColl, the former CEO and bank president and one of Sink's longtime mentors. "What we saw in Alex was brains, energy, ambition and drive. She got the job done — she was adaptable."
By 1981, Sink was sent to New York, where she opened a loan office. In 1986, she was transferred to Miami to head offices there.
That same year, Sink met Bill McBride, the powerful top attorney at Tampa's Holland & Knight, who was hoping to sign on Sink's bank as a client. He didn't get the contract. He did get a date.
They married in Miami. She was 38; he was 41. They had two children, William "Bert'' McBride, now a 2010 Stanford University graduate, and Cherlye "Lexie'' McBride, who is a senior at Wake Forest.
They moved outside Tampa in the small, rural town of Thonotosassa and built a sprawling two-story house on the lake, modeled after Sink's family home, so the kids could grow up in the country as they did.
By 1993, Sink had risen to the top of NationsBank Florida, worked in five cities, managed more than $40 billion in assets and supervised more than 9,000 employees in 800 branches.
• • •
Sink's broad experience in banking and civics work, gave her the kind of network that political operatives love.
In 1998, Democrat Buddy MacKay asked her to be his running mate in his run for governor. She turned him down. But four years later, she played a key role her husband's 2002 campaign for governor. He lost to then-Gov. Jeb Bush.
In 2006, Democratic leaders recruited her again — to run for chief financial officer. This time, she was ready and won, defeating Republican Tom Lee, former state Senate president from Valrico, when the rest of the statewide races went to Republicans.
Sink's banking work earned her loyal fans, from both parties, in every corner of the state.
"We know her and we like her track record," said Marielena Villamil, a Miami Republican who is supporting Sink along with her husband, Antonio Villamil, who was Jeb Bush's chief economic adviser.
Bob Hattaway, a former state legislator from Orlando, says he's "a Democrat who votes Republican." As owner of Adult Toy Storage, the Southeast's largest boat, car and RV storage facility, he credits Sink with giving him his big break: a loan to finance his untested idea.
"She had a vision as a banker to take a gamble on a small business," he said.
Sink tells audiences she'll bring that same mind-set to the governor's office as the state's job-creator in chief. Her primary goal is to nurture small business and foster a tax and regulatory climate that will encourage start-ups and reward those who create jobs with tax breaks. It is now a theme of her campaign.
"If you want a strong economy, if you want to start a small business, and if you want a better future for yourself and your children, are you ready to come with us?" Sink asked a large crowd in Jacksonville on Wednesday. "We're going to turn our state around."