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.

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.
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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.”