Melanie Dressel has a mantra.
Anyone who has attended a Columbia Bank annual meeting has heard it, and she proclaims it when speaking to investors, new employees and stock analysts.
The bank will be, she says, “the best community bank in every community Columbia serves.”
Under Dressel’s leadership as the bank’s president and CEO, the number of communities served by Columbia Bank has grown as the bank’s geographic footprint has grown. Total assets have grown, as has Dressel’s reputation among banking leaders nationwide.
As well as being honored as 2011 Community Banker of the Year by American Banker Magazine, Dressel was named by the publication in 2011 as one of the 25 Most Powerful Women in Banking.
By the numbers, Tacoma-born Columbia has grown from a handful of branches to a current count of 101 located from Bellingham to Bend, Ore., and from the coast to the Palouse in Eastern Washington.
With the recent acquisition of West Coast Bancorp, Columbia will operate more than 150 branches and will extend the brand south to Eugene, Ore., while establishing a solid presence in the greater Portland area and in Thurston County.
Assets, following approval of the merger, will rise to more than $7 billion.
Dressel has been with Columbia since the bank was founded in 1993, and she has said she is looking forward to 2013, when Columbia celebrates its 20th year.
The News Tribune spoke with Dressel at Columbia’s Tacoma headquarters.
Pacific First Federal Savings left for Seattle, Weyerhaeuser went to Federal Way, Russell Investments defected to Seattle — can you say that Columbia will stay in Tacoma?
We’re not planning to go anywhere. Our roots are really here in Tacoma. We want to help Tacoma strengthen. We could go other places, but this is where we want to be. Part of what we want to do is engage companies elsewhere and let them know what a great place Tacoma is. I talk about Tacoma all the time. We have a great educated work force. We have a lot of people headed up I-5 every morning who would love to work in Tacoma.
People who haven’t been here in decades look out my window and see the changes – they see the mountain and Foss Waterway, the car museum – they’re just amazed. It’s a beautiful place. I like to think we’ve helped other members of the business community.
There was a time when a few bankers, some investors, a few community leaders could get together and make some significant changes — building a federal courthouse, getting a new freeway spur, building a branch campus. What happened to that kind of power in Tacoma?
We need to have the same sense of urgency on the Executive Council, the Economic Development Board, the Chamber. I think the biggest difference — there are a lot of projects influenced directly by Norm Dicks, and by federal funds that are no longer available. I think that’s an obstacle. It slows things down.
Also, the City of Tacoma has to have that same level of urgency.
You are operating 101 branches, and soon that will rise again by half with the West Coast merger. How can you maintain the community spirit you’ve tried to instill throughout the Columbia network? Can you get too big? And we can imagine that Washington Mutual is the elephant in the room?
We want to hear from people who are living and working in their communities. We can’t make those decisions in Tacoma. We really want to have people (working for us) who are involved in their communities. That’s the easiest question someone can ask a community banker.
Our strategy is to be a Pacific Northwest community bank like the old SeaFirst, Rainier, and U.S. Bank in Oregon, being a community bank, and marketing that. But you can’t just hope things stay the same. We’ve been focused on creating great places for consumers to do banking, loaning to small businesses — we just never strayed from that.
We did one-half-billion dollars in new loans in 2011, and we’re on track to do the same this year.
The hard lesson: Some banks started making loans in other parts of the country. We’re staying much closer to home. We also see that our task is not done. We want to continue to expand in Oregon, Washington and into Idaho.
Do you see that as a trend with banks, say, with assets under $10 billion? More consolidation?
Yes, I think we’ll see more, and there are three factors. Top line revenue is going to be more difficult. The regulatory environment — it’s an onerous task to keep up with it and comply with it. And the cost of technology — our customers expect us to keep up. It’s going to be more difficult for some banks to keep up with that.
For the past five or six years, banks have been getting some bad press. Any response?
I keep wanting to get to the fabric of what happened in the financial meltdown. The community banks were not a part of the subprime debacle. It had more to do with Wall Street banks. Some people would say that people hate banks — but that’s not what I hear from our customers.
Credit unions say they serve communities better than banks.
They do a great job of telling people that.
Washington voters have legalized the recreational use of marijuana, which could mean opportunities for banks to loan money to entrepreneurs entering the business. Will Columbia be a part of that?
We haven’t discussed that. I think there are so many issues to be resolved around the new law. It’s too soon to be able to answer that question.
C.R. Roberts: 253-597-8535
Position: President and CEO, Columbia Banking System and Columbia Bank. Age: 60. Born: Colville. Education: University of Washington.
Lives: Gig Harbor.
Banking background: Bank of California, Puget Sound Bank, Columbia since it was in the planning stages.
Accomplishments: Has led Columbia to growth in Washington and Oregon; has established a national reputation as a banker.
Recognitions: Several, most notably named 2011 Community Banker of the Year by American Banker Magazine. Public service: Dressel has served as a leader within the Washington Bankers Association, American Bankers Association, Puget Sound Energy, Executive Council for a Greater Tacoma, Washington Roundtable and the Washington State Historical Society. She serves as vice chairwoman of the ABA Grassroots Committee. In the South Sound, Dressel has worked with the Foss Waterway Development Authority, Mary Bridge Children’s Foundation, Bellarmine Preparatory School, Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber, Tacoma Art Museum and the United Way.