Melanie Dressel, CEO, Columbia Bank

| FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 

EARLY YEARS: I grew up in Colville, Washington, where my parents ran a gift store. My dad taught me what true service is. People would call us on a Sunday because they had forgotten their wife’s birthday and he would go into town to open up the store. He didn’t think twice about it.

AMBITION: I told my parish priest at age 6 that I wanted to be president of the United States. At age 7, I loved watching the Democratic national convention on television. I grew up in the age of great politicians like Maggie [Warren Magnuson] and [Henry] Jackson. I planned to go to law school, then into politics after college, but I thought I should work for nine months first. I wanted weekends free so I could spend time with my husband. That’s how I got into banking.

COLUMBIA BANK: When we started Columbia Bank 18 years ago, we did something unusual. We decided to offer almost all the products and services that big banks have, like private banking and cash management. Later, we added a trust department. It was something very few community banks did. We didn’t want our bankers to have half a toolbox. I think [the diverse offerings] helped to accelerate our growth. The first day we opened, we had people lined up to open accounts with us. It was one of the most exciting days in my professional life. Puget Sound National Bank, which had 50 percent of the local market, had just been acquired by KeyBank. I think the community perceived the hometown bank was gone. We wanted to fill those shoes. We went on to make seven small acquisitions until March 2008, when everything came to a screeching halt.

FINANCIAL CRISIS: We always knew we would make it through because we had a traditional balance sheet. [During the boom years] analysts were always asking, “Why aren’t you earning as much as Frontier Bank [which invested heavily in real estate]?” I told them, “This is not our business model.” Even at the top of the market, only 12 percent of our loans were residential construction. We make loans to business owners and their employees funded by retail deposits. If we loan a lot of money to a business, we take real estate as security. So we have a lot of commercial real estate in our loan portfolio, but it’s all tied to a relationship.

EXPANSION: When we saw the markets loosen up, we raised capital. We’ve since made five more acquisitions [of troubled banks]. We expect to see opportunities to acquire more banks.

RISK: I’m worried that some banks are jeopardizing structure and safety to put loans on the books. It’s way too early to be taking big risks, particularly in commercial real estate. We want to make loans and we will be competitive, but banks are going to get in trouble again if they make loans with no guarantees and no equity.

GOAL: We want to be the Pacific Northwest’s regional community bank. Being a community bank means that you are involved in a lot of different things and through our involvement we strengthen the community. It’s a different style of banking. I don’t think that anyone has become the old Rainier Bank or the old Seafirst. They had such marvelous community ties. We believe that the value of our franchise is embedded in customers and our employees. If we take good care of our customers and our employees, then our shareholders will benefit.

CULTURE: We believe you can’t be a great place to bank if you aren’t a great place to work. We have teams of bankers from other banks that approach us and say they would really like to be a part of Columbia because of our culture. We are very picky about who we hire. But we have been fortunate to attract very strong bankers. We had a salary freeze in place for over a year. Our employees understood that if we gave people raises we would probably have had to lay people off. Everyone was willing to make short-term sacrifices for their fellow employees; those are the kinds of people we attract.

GROWTH: As we grow, our key concern is how to preserve our culture. Not a week goes by that the management team doesn’t discuss that. Of course, it’s important to have financial strength. And we’ve been a dynamic, evolving company. But we don’t want to just grow to put more zeros after our assets. We really want to continue to be who we are, but also to provide great opportunities for our people and to really take excellent care of our customers. We have a two-day Columbia banking school where new employees get to know who we are and how important our culture is. We take very seriously being among [Seattle Business magazine’s] 100 Best Companies to Work For. We slice and dice the data from the survey and share it with our staff.

WOMEN CEOS: I think management is more a product of the individual than gender. Each one of us in our executive team is as different as night and day. That brings different conversations to the table. But listening is an important quality in a CEO, and women are typically good listeners.

TACOMA: We don’t do as a good a job as we could to talk about the good things of Tacoma. I bring people here as often as I can so they can see the nature, the water and the affordable real estate. There is a lot here to attract companies.

Off the Clock Profile #2: Karl Bischoff

Off the Clock Profile #2: Karl Bischoff

Chairman & COO, Phinney Bischoff
| FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is one in a monthly series of miniprofiles featuring local executives “off the clock.”

EXECUTIVE'S NAME, TITLE AND COMPANY NAME.
Karl Bischoff, Chairman & COO, Phinney Bischoff, Seattle.

TELL US WHAT YOUR COMPANY DOES AND WHAT ATTRACTED YOU TO THIS BUSINESS.
For over 30 years, we’ve created innovative solutions for both global and local brands. Since our start in 1982, we’ve evolved from a traditional design house to an experience design studio providing strategic branding, creative and digital services. But one thing has never changed: our unwavering commitment to provide meaningful, engaging and strategic solutions that create valuable experiences across every connection point.

After 20 years as a commercial photographer, I discovered my favorite part of the job was learning about my clients' companies and what made them tick. I started working with my wife, Leslie Phinney, on various projects and we eventually joined forces.

WHAT BOOK/TV SHOW/PODCAST ARE YOU READING/WATCHING/LISTENING TO AND WHY?
I love to read Medium.com, a blog by and for writers. I’ve even been brave enough to write a couple articles for it. I like to watch Roadies, a show about the backstage crew for a touring rock band. I spent my youth as a musician playing rock, blues, jazz, and traveling with an international avant-garde group called Amra Arma. I like reading anything by Neil Stephenson or William Gibson (speculative fiction writers) as well as technical manuals (sorry, what can I say?).

WHAT'S YOUR FAVORITE SPOT IN SEATTLE?
Either home with my lovely wife and two pups, or at Bischoff Boatworks, my boat shop.

WHAT KIND OF CAR DO YOU DRIVE AND WHY?
After many years driving vans to carry musical equipment or photographic gear, I did my time with ragtops. Now the boatbuilding has me driving a Toyota Tundra monster truck with a rack for carrying big stuff.

TELL US SOMETHING PEOPLE DON'T KNOW ABOUT YOU.
In 1972, while on tour with the band in London, we did a biofeedback demonstration for the American ambassador at a U.S. Embassy reception for us.

WHAT ARE YOU PASSIONATE ABOUT OUTSIDE OF WORK?
For the past 15 years, I have been building wooden boats. I am intrigued by the history of the craft. I study how things were done hundreds of years ago by the masters. While I do use modern power tools, I also make some tools myself, as many hand tools are no longer manufactured. Most of the materials and processes I use are similar to those used for centuries. I am currently building a 30-foot wood schooner (two-masted) named Bish, my dad’s nickname, in my shop on the Duwamish in Georgetown. I’m six years into it, with an estimated 12 years to go. I don’t have a ton of time to dedicate to it, but it's fun poking away at it.

› Tell us about your Off the Clock activities. Visit seattlebusinessmag.com/clock-seattle-executive.