Columbia Bank isn’t known for splashy marketing. Nor is relative size an especially prominent feature for the Tacoma-based bank.
And while Melanie Dressel, who died Feb. 19, was known in the community for her leadership of the company and civic engagement, she wasn’t a larger-than-life, quoted-everywhere celebrity CEO, nor was there an effort to make her one.
That sort of understated mode of operation might obscure what Arne Espe and Bill Philip started, and Dressel built upon, in transforming an obscure Longview bank into a mainstay of Tacoma’s business community and a significant player in the Northwest banking industry.
Just the fact that Columbia is still around, and here, is no small accomplishment, for the bank or Tacoma.
The pattern of companies of size moving their headquarters up the road, as happened in banking with Pacific First Financial, later acquired by Washington Mutual, or being bought out, as happened with Puget Sound Bank, run by Philip and bear-hugged into an acquisition by Key, depleted the city’s already thin ranks of locally based corporations.
Aside from the immediate effect of the loss of jobs and income, those departures drain the community of involvement and investment. Being the place where company decision-makers are making their decisions (other than about leaving the place) is to a town’s long-term benefit, which is why cities and states fight so hard to recruit and retain them.
The ranks of banking institutions have been thinned as well, thanks to the Great Recession. Gone from the local scene are such names as the aforementioned WaMu, Westside Community, Pierce Commercial, Rainier Pacific and Venture.
Columbia didn’t escape the pain. The company reported a loss for 2009 as loan volumes dropped and it stuffed more money into loan loss reserves. But the company’s underlying strength was such that it raised additional capital, bounced back to profitability in 2010 and was a go-to institution for regulators looking for someone to take over banks they had closed.
In Washington state, Columbia picked up four (Bank of Whitman, First Heritage, Summit and American Marine) and the acquisition of the failed Columbia River Bank helped expand is market footprint in Oregon.
Columbia has been growing through normal acquisitions as well, including one announced last month, for Eugene, Oregon-based Pacific Continental.
The menu of alternatives is somewhat limited. The model of 20 years ago — build a strong regional bank and hope for a buyout from one of the national megabanks — is as anachronistic as passbook savings accounts. Few large banks are on buying binges these days.
Columbia could look to tie up with a like-minded regional somewhere else, although candidates are few, because of consolidation. Aside from moving beyond a region it knows, making a big growth leap carries considerable risk.
It also could keep on as it has, occupying that niche between the big national namesand the smaller community operations. It’s a segment once occupied by the Puget Sounds (the old one) of the banking world; hollowed out by consolidation, the midsized middle-market slice is being repopulated by companies such as Washington Federal, Banner and Umpqua.
That’s hardly an unattractive option for Columbia. It can continue to generate growth internally and by making the occasional acquisition in enticing markets it’s not already in.
That would mean Tacoma keeps the headquarters of a publicly traded company and whatever employment, attention and community focus comes with that.
If Columbia’s future promises to be understated, that’s also to the good; excitement isn’t what a bank, or the banking industry, ought to be known for.
Bill Virgin is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.