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: Cougar Goals

Executive Q+A: Cougar Goals

The dean of WSU’s Carson College of Business is intent on creating new undergraduate opportunities.
| FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 
 
Larry W. “Chip” Hunter, a scholar of human resource management and industrial relations, became dean of Washington State University’s Carson College of Business in March 2015. He aims to make Carson College the premier place in the Northwest for an undergraduate business education.
 
EARLY YEARS: I was born in Kansas, lived in Minnesota during grade school and moved west to Moscow, Idaho, when I was 12. My father was an administrator at the University of Idaho. My mother opened a children’s clothing store. My first paying job was washing dishes at Allino’s Hoagie Shop in Moscow. The place has been remodeled and is now called Gambino’s and is owned by Nancy Swanger, the director of our School for Hospitality Business Management! 
 
WHY BUSINESS: I was curious about workplace conditions and how money creates opportunity. As a professor, I began to wonder if we could get students thinking about how they, as managers and leaders, can create opportunities for others.
 
EDUCATION: I got my master’s at Oxford University, where I worked for legendary professors of economics, politics and philosophy. I also learned to play cricket. While working on my doctorate at MIT, advisers encouraged me to get out from behind my desk and understand the world, focusing on questions that matter. 
 
U.S. BUSINESS EDUCATION: We are very good at training students in technical business skills, and by encouraging them to take courses in liberal arts and sciences, we help them develop critical thinking and communication skills. At research universities, professors also do research and inspire rigorous ways of thinking about problems. That said, we don’t always do the best job of training students to translate their technical skills and abstract thinking into defining and solving real problems. We also don’t do a good job of teaching them to confront their mistakes and learn from failure. 
 
CARSON COLLEGE: Employers want students who have all the required technical skills in things like finance and accounting and who are analytical, but they also want students who can communicate, collaborate, take initiative and be entrepreneurial. There isn’t enough time to teach all that separately, so one idea is to infuse a lot of that thinking into existing courses. Accounting students, for example, might use online “adaptive learning” technology to learn technical skills, but then work in groups in class explaining the concepts to each other and working on issues they don’t understand. That encourages collaboration. We have a task force looking at these kinds of approaches and how to diffuse it into the faculty. 
 
WORKFORCE READINESS: We need students with strong entry-level skills, but we also need to shape their ability to learn. One approach is to work closely with employers to structure great internship opportunities, and encourage students to engage in global experiences, networking events and business-plan competitions. The best predictor of getting a job is having an internship. All studentst should have an internship as part of their education. 
 
PULLMAN: Having our main campus in Pullman can make it difficult to bring in experts and attract a diverse group of students. But we are creating diverse campuses across the state. Our Tri-Cities campus has a deep expertise in wine business management, our Everett campus works with experts in senior living management, and in Vancouver, our students do hands-on consulting with a local business in their senior year. We’d love to work with alumni to raise a fund to invest in innovative ways of teaching business.  
 
ONLINE EDUCATION: We are learning more and more about how to work in the online environment. I’d like to use more “adaptive learning” technologies to guide students through their more technically oriented courses, identify areas they have trouble with, and have facilitators and instructors there to help students get through challenging bits. 
 
DEVELOPING LEADERSHIP: There’s interesting recent work that shows introverts and extroverts are equally likely to be effective leaders. Self-awareness is a common theme among successful leaders. How do you play to your strengths? How do you compensate for your weaknesses? And how do you discover what those strengths and weaknesses are? Many leaders are really good listeners who know how to strike the balance between listening and acquiring information and not waiting too long to make a decision.
 
FIVE-YEAR GOALS: We want to make our online programs the best in the Northwest for the price. We also want to provide a lot more business education to non-business students, including courses in financial literacy so they know what to ask if they’re buying insurance or taking out a loan. When I was [associate dean] at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, we offered a one-week immersion course in entrepreneurship for scientists.
 
TEN-YEAR GOALS: To be among the top 25 public undergraduate business programs in the country — the first place students choose for an undergraduate business education in the Northwest. We also want to become the place that the business and policy community goes to for critical thinking about the Northwest. 
 

TAKE 5
Get to Know Chip Hunter

  1. DIVERSIONS: “I’m a trivia nut and went on Jeopardy! in the ’90s. I lost.”
  2. BOOK SHELF: “David Allen’s Getting Things Done is a great guide to personal productivity and effectiveness at work. Between the World and Me [by Ta-Nehisi Coates] is a deeply moving book about the reality of black experience in America. I just started reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals.” 
  3. FAVORITE DRIVE: “From Seattle to Pullman, with its changing geography, over the Cascades, into the high desert, and then finally into the Palouse.” 
  4. ADMIRED LEADER: “I am in awe of Lincoln — an amazing combination of steel spine and flexibility in approaching problems, of deep unwavering principles combined with pragmatism.” 
  5. DREAM VACATION: “A golf trip to St. Andrews, Scotland, with a group of my buddies.”

EXECUTIVE Q+A RESPONSES HAVE BEEN EDITED AND CONDENSED.