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.

Executive Q&A with Gus Simonds: Building Resilience

Executive Q&A with Gus Simonds: Building Resilience

The president and CEO of MacDonald-Miller Facility Solutions likes adventure. His background in selling (and sailing) has helped him steer a confident course.
| FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 

Gus Simonds and his management team took the helm at MacDonald-Miller in 2006. The Great Recession hit two years later. By focusing on services and increasingly complex projects, the mechanical contractor survived, then thrived, doubling business since 2012. 

The company now has 1,000 employees and boasts $260 million in annual revenue.

EARLY YEARS: I grew up in the western suburbs of Chicago. My father worked as an insurance executive. He’s a natural leader and taught me to sail. Mom was an award-winning botanical artist. She grew up in Chelan, and visiting Washington state got me hooked on the adventure the wilderness offers. I often went bird watching with Mom. I was a bit of a science nerd and would devour nature books and field guides and collect small creatures as pets. 

EDUCATION: Lured by the West, I went to Washington State University to study environmental science. I drove my 1971 Oldsmobile Cutlass back and forth from Pullman to Chicago many times. The WSU experience taught me self-reliance and the power of perseverance. I was 2,000 miles from home, and there was no electronic banking or texting. When your car broke, you fixed it.  

CAREER: After college, I tried finding a job in hazardous-waste management — sexy stuff! — but ended up with a sales job at Honeywell selling building mechanical systems, service and retrofits. Other people hated cold calling; I thought it was fun. You get paid to make friends — sweet!

MACDONALD-MILLER: Five years later, in 1989, I wanted to get back to the Northwest and took the first job I could get in Seattle doing service and special projects sales at MacDonald-Miller. I hadn’t planned to stay, but once I started at the company, I could tell MacDonald-Miller was a special place with great opportunities.

THE BUSINESS: We make buildings work better by designing and installing or retrofitting HVAC systems [for heating and cooling], plumbing systems and control systems so that buildings can keep operating at peak performance. We are also doing a lot more building efficiency analysis to help owners evaluate the cost and benefit of improving their systems to save on energy bills while also increasing tenant comfort. 

CHANGE: When the recession hit, for five years it was the school of hard knocks. With a diverse range of clientele, we began focusing on services. Since 2012, we have grown by about 20 percent a year. This year, with more than 1,000 employees, we will be twice the size we were in 2012.

CULTURE: Our company culture is our internal brand — it’s what makes you want to come to work at MacDonald-Miller. You look for ways to put a smile on the faces of your customers and colleagues. We have 40 shareholders who all work at the company and are required to sell their stock if they leave. We preach silo busting and collaboration daily. The goal is having long-term employees who can see how what they do can make a difference to the company and to our customers. 

TECHNOLOGY: There are huge IT opportunities like finding new uses for 3D modeling and better managing our mobile workforce of several hundred. Putting new systems in place is a challenge, so we hired a CIO last year to take that on. We now see IT not as a cost but as a way to provide a competitive advantage.

FUTURE: We are now in the early stages of involvement in two of the largest projects Seattle has seen in its history — the expansion of the Washington State Convention Center and the transformation of Swedish Medical Center First Hill. Both projects will be completed in the next four years. Our strengthened “big project” reputation hopefully will help us win other signature projects. We are also putting a renewed emphasis on energy efficiency and building performance. That work has taken us to other regions, like Canada and the Caribbean. I think we could do well in San Francisco. 

COMPETITION: I have great respect for McKinstry and some of my other competitors. We all run on thin margins, especially compared to the risks we take around the accountability of system design, long-term performance and cost. In some projects, we may have 10,000 water-pipe connections. It’s a big problem if there is even one leak. One thing McDonald-Miller has become known for doing right is having teams from across all trades that can execute on the most complex systems. It goes back to culture and attracting and keeping the best talent. 

MANAGEMENT: My worst mistakes came from thinking that people could evolve into a new role because I wanted them to rather than really testing their ability and vision first. Those mistakes are always messy for both parties.  My proudest achievement was staying financially healthy through a very long recession. We learned a lot and became a better company through that experience. 

EXECUTIVE Q+A RESPONSES HAVE BEEN EDITED AND CONDENSED.

TAKE 5: Get to Know Gus Simonds
1. GO-TO GETAWAY:
The Lake Chelan area. “It’s my launch pad for adventure. Nothing beats a glass of wine at a winery while you plan your next adventure.” 

2. FAVORITE BOOK: Lake Chelan: The Greatest Lake In The World by John Fahey.

3. MOST ADMIRED PERSON: Richard Branson. “He puts his culture and employees up front as part of his brand. He bucks tradition. He’s an adventurer. He sucks the marrow out of life!”

4. I LOVE: Mountain biking, golfing, fly fishing, backpacking, snowboarding, collecting antique beer cans, playing guitar. 

5. CURRENT WHEELS: A Chevy Volt, a Toyota pickup and a 1973 455 “big block” Hurst/Olds. “I’ve had an Oldsmobile since high school, including several Cutlass 442s, and it’s a bit of my personal brand now. There’s no substitute for cubic inches.”