Talking Points: Robert Peters Washington state president, Bank of America

| FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 

Bob Peters took over the Washington operations of Bank of America in 2009, just as the bank faced a subprime mortgage crisis tied to its acquisition of troubled Countrywide Financial. Now, Peters is leading a drive to get the bank, which built its dominant local presence through the acquisition of Seafirst Bank in 1983, to take better care of its customers.

EARLY LIFE: I was born and raised near Oakland, California. I grew up admiring Jacques Cousteau and came to the University of Washington in 1979 with a plan to study marine biology. I was on a swimming scholarship and made the Olympic development team that year. I also looked at the University of California, Santa Barbara, but when I saw people carrying surfboards on campus, I thought that was too much of a risk. There would be too many distractions.

FAMILY: My great-grandfather emigrated from Denmark and worked for Bank of America for 35 years starting in 1908. He passed away at 90. As a child, my job when I visited him in Fresno was to go into his closet in the morning, grab his wooden leg, put a sock on the stump, put him on the wheelchair and wheel him out to a card table where he would play pinochle with friends. They were all former customers whom he had worked with through the Great Depression.

CAREER: I realized that marine biology was going to be a hard lifestyle from a family perspective, so I got my undergraduate degree in international studies. In 1985, I joined Seafirst Bank in the mailroom. A year later, I moved into the commercial banking business. Starting at the bottom of the company, I learned the importance of having respect for everyone at the company.

CHALLENGES: When I became president in 2009, those were difficult years for the whole community. I remember that my great-grandfather used to say: “You can’t help everyone, but you help as many people as you possibly can.” The impact [of the recession] on our consumer business was significant, as people lost their jobs and weren’t able to pay their mortgages. Bank of America is doing a lot to help. We’ve modified over 2,400 loans here in Washington.  

LEADERSHIP: In difficult times, people want to have confidence in the organization they are working for. That means clarity and vision, a commitment to do the right thing and to live by values people will be proud of. You also need the conviction to push forward.

ECONOMY: When I look at the business community today, I see corporations that have very strong balance sheets that have the capacity to invest and withstand a recession, but don’t act because they lack the confidence that demand will be there. There is a concern about where tax rates will be and what the spending in Washington, D.C., will be. If there was certainty, there would be movement regardless of what the certainty was.

MARKET SHARE: We have more than a 21 percent share of deposits in Washington state. Our next largest competitor [Wells Fargo Bank] is 11 percent. We are being aggressive on loans today. The first three quarters of 2012, we were at $215 million in new loan origination to small businesses, up about 33 percent from the previous year. We’ve hired about 30 small-business bankers this year and now have a total of 43 in the state working with customers with half a million to five million dollars in revenue. That’s where job creation is going to be greatest and most critical to the economy. We believe there is a good opportunity there, given the pullback there has been from other providers in that segment over the last several years.

GROWTH AREAS: There are three industry clusters that will drive most of the growth in Washington: aerospace, technology and health care. Some of our biggest companies are there, including Boeing and Microsoft and all their suppliers.  

THE BANK’S COMPETITIVE ADVANTAGE:
We can help individuals whether they work on a factory floor or run the company and whether their needs are local or global.  We have people in 40 countries who offer all the support you need to operate abroad. We can help milk processing companies hedge their exposure to milk prices. We help hedge natural gas. We can help mitigate interest rate exposure. With respect to consumers, we are committed to offering clarity. We want to make sure that the average person understands what
he or she is getting from us as a financial
services company.  

TECHNOLOGY: We recently moved our [computer] system to our national platform. That allows customers in Washington state to have access to all of the bank’s products and services. We want to make sure our clients can do their banking when and where and how they want.  You can deposit a check or transfer money all from your mobile device. You don’t need to go to a banking center.

EDUCATION: Impacting young people is one of the best investments you can make in life. So I’ve tried to limit my outside endeavors to what we can do to help education. Early in my career, I had a formal mentor who helped me and later, I had many informal mentors. At the Seattle Chamber [he is co-chair of the chamber’s education task force], we want to mobilize our 2,200 company members and their 700,000 employees to be mentors to middle school and high school kids. We want them to be role models—to take kids to the tunnel project and show them why geometry might be relevant for a job they might get. We can help the students create a vision for themselves and a passion for what jobs there might be in the future and why it’s important for them to stay in school.

IMPROVING SEATTLE SCHOOLS: Whether you are a for-profit business, the public sector or the school system, you have to hold people accountable and responsible for improvement. But there are a lot of inputs. It is not easy to determine if a teacher, a principal or a school is necessarily failing. You have to have competent people who understand their roles and responsibilities. And they have to be held accountable.

The Outsider’s Perspective at Bartell Drugs

The Outsider’s Perspective at Bartell Drugs

Brian Unmacht, the first non-Bartell to run Bartell Drugs, knows his mission is to keep the family-owned business relevant in the face of stiff competition.
FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 

Brian Unmacht spent six years working at his father’s drugstore company and, after college, 27 years at REI, before becoming only the fourth CEO in Bartell Drugs’ 126-year history. Now he’s intent on using local partnerships to make Bartell a strong competitor to the national drugstore chains. 

FAMILY: My father had been an executive at the Bon Marché. In the 1970s, he formed his own chain of small drugstores in rural areas. I spent six years in high school and college working for my dad and eventually managed one of his stores. We were a $20 million business and I computerized the record keeping and did the finances and everything. It was a sort of love/hate thing because you could never separate the business from the family. But I appreciate having had a chance to work with my dad. In 1980, 19 percent interest rates and the recession did us in. We had loyal customers, but customers still went for price and selection when grocery stores started competing with us.

TRAVEL: After college, I spent a year backpacking in Nepal and Pakistan and skiing in Europe. When I returned, I had no money, so I went to work for REI. They had seven stores and a catalog and were beginning to expand beyond the Northwest. I managed the Tempe store in Arizona, opened the Chicago store and then worked on the store in Japan as vice president of international. That was an exciting time.

RETAIL: In the ’80s, it was Walmart that dramatically changed retail as it sourced overseas. In the last 15 years, it’s been Amazon. You’re always going to have disrupters. It comes down to how do you keep yourself relevant? In the recession of 2009, the number of paddling and canoe shops in the country dropped to 1,500 from 2,500. With fewer distribution points, vendors like North Face were trying to increase web sales. At REI, our value proposition was to provide expertise and credibility. North Face would give REI an exclusive for a certain time because of that. It was a win-win.

BARTELL DRUGS: I’ve come full circle. Now I am back in the drugstore space. We are up against $120 billion retailers like Walgreens and CVS. How do we find unique products and services that they can’t carry in their 8,000 stores? We offer assortments of local candy like Theo or Seattle Chocolates. We partnered with Snoqualmie Ice Cream to sell our own brand. At our Bellevue store, we offer scooped ice cream. If you go to Fourth and Madison downtown, we have a partnership with Caffé Vita for the espresso, and with other local vendors for sandwiches and other food offerings.

BEER: Bartell always sold beer but it tended to be Budweiser and Heineken. We put in a beverage buyer who had a passion around craft beer and empowered him to form partnerships. Now we have a partnership with Two Beers Brewing Co. to do a Tangerine IPA limited run. Last year, we did Bartell Spring Elixir with Fremont Brewing. We have 150 partnerships with other locally owned firms.

FAMILY BUSINESS: There have only been three top executives [before me] at Bartell’s over 126 years and they were all named George Bartell. Being family owned, we’re part of the community and take the long view. I tell employees that’s not enough to be relevant. There are a lot of family-owned businesses that fail. 

OUTSIDER: The family put together an outside board five years ago to get a wider point of view and I was put on the board. The family recognized there was going to be a gap before the five cousins in the fourth generation were ready to manage the company. That’s why they brought me in as the first outside manager. With revenues of $500 million and growing, management was also getting more challenging. Evelyn Merrill, the oldest of the cousins, is senior marketing manager. She has a lot of good ideas and is challenging the third generation in terms of her view of the brand.

STORES: We have 62 stores. We are talking about adding two to three stores a year. Today, we’re primarily in King and Snohomish counties, but I want to look at Whatcom [County], Bellingham, Poulsbo, Bainbridge Island and potentially farther south. With the Walgreen/Rite Aid merger, some Rite Aid stores will probably be divested. If the right stores came on the market, we would be interested. The Greater Seattle area is still booming, and with more density there is room to put a lot more drugstores in convenient places. 

HEALTH CARE: We do flu shots now, but we are looking at providing other immunizations as well as testing for strep throat or flu so that you don’t need to go to your primary care doctor every time. Because of our concentration of stores in Greater Seattle, our share of the pharmacy business is right up there with Walgreens. It’s important that we have that scale to work with the insurance plans. We had a pilot program to have Group Health clinics in 25 of our locations, and Kaiser [which is acquiring Group Health] seems interested in continuing the concept.

COST OF DOING BUSINESS: I worry that in five years, if Seattle’s not booming anymore, what does it mean if you’ve raised the fixed cost [by raising the minimum wage]? But I worry less about the minimum wage than the growing congestion issue. I have 2,000 employees who live all over the Puget Sound region. We have to move freight around. Congestion is a bigger and bigger issue. 

EXECUTIVE Q+A RESPONSES HAVE BEEN EDITED AND CONDENSED.