WASHINGTON'S LEADING BUSINESS MAGAZINE

Melanie Dressel, CEO, Columbia Bank

Under the steady hand of Melanie Dressel, Tacoma-based Columbia Bank has avoided the worst of the financial crisis, maintaining a robust balance sheet that has allowed it to raise capital and acquire failing banks.
Leslie D. Helm |   October 2011   |  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

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