In 2003, Melanie Dressel ascended to the top spot at Columbia Banking System.
When she started working for the bank as senior vice president of private banking in 1993, it had relocated to Tacoma from Bellevue with only four branches in its portfolio.
Under Dressel’s watch, the Tacoma-based bank would go on to amass a regional empire across three northwestern states, on its way to more than 150 branches.
Dressel died unexpectedly Feb. 19 of dilated cardiomyopathy, a type of heart disease, according to the county medical examiner. She was 64.
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
Bill Weyerhaeuser, chairman of Columbia Banking System’s board, said growth can be a challenge for any organization. Those that wish to retain their culture, like Columbia Bank, have to “continually fight becoming too bureaucratic.”
So far, he said, Columbia has been successful on that front, and intends to maintain its “community-bank orientation, with customers definitely coming first and being more relationally oriented than transaction oriented.”
By all measures, the bank has been a success. Columbia Bank’s net income grew from $10.9 million in 2002 to $104.9 million in 2016.
And once the acquisition of Eugene, Oregon-based Pacific Continental is approved, Columbia is poised to soar past $10 billion in assets to the second-largest bank based in Washington state, according SNL Financial. That’s up from $1.6 billion in 2002, the year before Dressel became president and CEO of Columbia Banking System.
That’s no small accomplishment after the Great Recession, during which Columbia Bank bought five smaller banks, four in Washington, with the assistance of the FDIC.
Weyerhaeuser said her death came as a complete surprise, and the loss has been hard.
“She was just beloved. I don’t know any other way to put it. From senior management to tellers to people out in the branches,” Weyerhaeuser said. “She could be so gracious and thoughtful that people just responded to her.”
She worked long hours, as any CEO would, he said. But Dressel also made time for family and community. She had served on the boards of several local organizations over the years, including the Mary Bridge Children’s Foundation, Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber of Commerce, the Executive Council for a Greater Tacoma, and the Washington State Historical Society.
Last year, Dressel earned the lifetime achievement award from the University of Washington Tacoma Milgard School of Business. In a video that preceded her acceptance speech, employees lauded her work ethic, kindness and interest in others.
Also in the video, David Devine, senior vice president and marketing director, said Dressel had a “no jerks policy” at Columbia Bank. “There’s just a kind of person who ends up working at Columbia Bank because she sets this remarkable example.”
Those values and the bank’s culture are unlikely to change with a new CEO, said Aaron James Deer, an analyst at Sandler O’Neill who helps institutional investors make investment decisions on publicly traded banks.
Columbia Bank in particular prided itself in maintaining close community ties, Deer said.
“Melanie, along with the board, has delivered a very strong executive management team and a very strong, values-based culture,” he said. “I wouldn’t expect … any sort of meaningful change in strategy as the board figures out what the new leadership is going to look like.”
Dressel had a reputation as a “superb deal-maker, which was reflected in the number of successful acquisitions the bank made over the years,” Deer said.
She was widely respected among her peers. Brian Marlow, KeyBank market president in the South Sound, said he is honored to have known her as a competitor who shared a common commitment to serving their communities.
“Melanie had this belief that if you took care of your clients and employees, and you took care of your community, they would take care of you. She used that premise to shape a very successful company,” he said in a statement.
Hal Russell, president and CEO of Commencement Bank, was once pitted against Dressel for the top spot at Columbia. Russell said her brand of leadership was unlike many who occupy the C-suite.
“I think some people, as they are fighting their way to get to the top, lose track of the fact that they didn’t get there without the assistance of others,” Russell said. “One of the things she was good about was not bringing attention to herself. … She was very good at sharing the wealth when it came to recognition and praise.”
Dressel’s business acumen and drive for expansion helped propel her again and again to a list of the most powerful women in banking nationwide by American Banker Magazine. Columbia landed 17th on the Forbes top 20 list of U.S. banks in 2015 after appearing at No. 31 the previous year.
The company is considering outside and and inside candidates as it looks for its next permanent CEO.
On Wednesday, the board named Hadley Robbins, executive vice president and chief operating officer, as interim CEO. Robbins has more than 35 years of experience in banking, and was an internal candidate in 2014 for the COO position after an extensive national search to replace Mark Nelson, who retired in 2013. Robbins joined the bank in 2013 after the merger with West Coast Bancorp.
In an emailed statement, Robbins said he and the rest of the leadership team had a close, collaborative relationship with Dressel.
“We have a very strong team and culture, and Melanie’s death made everyone at the company realize that we have something really special that she gave us, and we are going to stay true to it and carry it forward,” Robbins said.
Weyerhaeuser praised Robbins’ deep, executive-level banking experience.
“He has gotten to know our culture well,” Weyerhaeuser said. “His leadership style is inclusive and he has a soft touch, and yet he can make difficult decisions if need be.”
Even with a change to a new CEO, the company’s roots are here in the South Sound, he said.
“We have every intention of remaining in Tacoma,” Weyerhaeuser said.
Deer said a sale is also unlikely.
“This is a very solid community bank serving the Puget Sound and the greater Pacific Northwest that has a superb track record,” Deer said. “Certainly there’s nothing in that record that would suggest that independence isn’t the right strategy.”
A CEO is “kind of like the captain of the ship, and they are setting the tone for the organization,” said Jim Edrington, executive vice president of the American Bankers Association professional development group.
“They are the face to their communities and to the business community in particular,” he said.
That top leader has a vision for the organization and looks to the future for industry changes.
“She was a wonderful banker and former board member (of ABA) and woman leader. It’s very sad,” Edrington said Tuesday. “… I know a lot of female leaders have got to be devastated today.”
Banks will groom young prospects for executive talent by “building the bench” — a task at which many have said Dressel was exceptionally good.
Weyerhaeuser said Dressel was good at mentoring and helped develop the bank’s succession plan with an eye to workers below the senior management level.
“She just had a natural caring for employees that would lead her to be concerned about people’s careers at the bank,” he said. “… We miss her terribly. But we all know that she would tell us to stay working and get on with it. We know what we need to do.”
for Melanie Dressel
A memorial service for Melanie Dressel at 11 a.m. March 11 at Bellarmine Preparatory School in Tacoma. A reception will follow in Bellarmine’s Connelly Campus Center. Private family interment will be at Vaughn Bay Cemetery.