Melanie Dressel was the public face of Columbia Bank, the executive who guided the Tacoma-based financial institution through the economic crisis of a decade ago. Her unexpected death in February 2017 had the potential to be hugely disruptive to the bank and its customers, employees, investors and the communities in which it operates. “It was a blow that came out of nowhere,” remembers Craig Eerkes, president of Sun Pacific Energy Inc. in Kennewick and now chairman of Columbia’s board. “It was one of those phone calls that just changes everything.”
But Columba’s board wasn’t caught unprepared. It had already begun succession planning in anticipation of Dressel’s eventual retirement, starting with the selection of search firms to identify internal and external candidates for the CEO’s job. “One of the top responsibilities of any board is succession planning,” Eerkes says. “It’s where the board is completely accountable,” and its decision can have significant consequences.
Then-Chairman William Weyerhaeuser took other steps to make for a smooth transition, Eerkes recalls, including immediate and reassuring communication with various constituencies — including a bank Columbia was in the midst of acquiring. The entire board was included on each step in the selection of the next CEO. Eventually, Chief Operating Officer Hadley Robbins was named CEO.
“It came off very well,” Eerkes reports.
It’s a model Eerkes intends to follow as Columbia continues succession planning for its next CEO, talking to search firms and identifying internal candidates who can be given increased responsibilities and opportunities to learn. “We want to have that plan in place,” he says.