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Originally published November 27, 2011 at 10:00 PM | Page modified November 29, 2011 at 11:37 AM

In Person: Columbia Bank's Dressel tries to balance growth and local focus

At a time when banks and bankers are lustily damned by Occupiers, tea partyers, politicians, farmers, businesspeople and ordinary account holders, Columbia Banking System CEO Melanie Dressel wants to make it clear: She's not one of those bankers.

Seattle Times business reporter

Melanie Dressel

PRESIDENT AND CEO, Columbia Banking System

Age: 59

Hometown: Colville

Education: Bachelor's degree in political science, University of Washington

Family: Husband, Bob (married 38 years), and two grown sons

Career path: Bank of California, various positions, 1974-88. Puget Sound National Bank, senior vice president and head of private banking, 1988-93. Started at Columbia Bank as senior vice president of private banking in 1993; since 2003, president and CEO of Columbia Banking System.

Quote: "I really do believe that if you do take good care of your customers, our shareholders will benefit in the long run."

Source: Company filings, Seattle Times research

quotes "In a small community, you get to know your customers really well." This... Read more
quotes Ms. Dressel really DOES answer her own phone, and is friendly and efficient. Columbia... Read more
quotes As a long-time employee of Columbia Bank I can personally attest to Melanie's wonderful... Read more

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At a time when banks and bankers are lustily damned by Occupiers, tea partyers, politicians, farmers, businesspeople and ordinary account holders, Columbia Banking System CEO Melanie Dressel wants to make it clear: She's not one of those bankers.

"A week doesn't go by when I don't get an email or a letter or a phone call — first of all, they're amazed that I answer my own phone — saying how much they love their bankers," said Dressel, who's held the top job at Tacoma-based Columbia since 2003. "We don't have 'evil bankers.' "

Dressel steered Columbia through the shoals and riptides of last decade's lending boom and bust, and over the past two years used the bank's relatively strong position to scoop up several smaller competitors.

"I thought if we could just reach $500 million [in assets] we'd be doing well," said W.W. "Bill" Philip, who led the bank's move into Pierce County and then ran the holding company until January 2000. "But it just grew and grew and grew."

Columbia Banking is now nearly 10 times that size.

Dressel's challenge is to manage a major regional institution without having it remind people of "some big, insensitive, out-of-state bank."

"We see ourselves as being a key factor in our communities — we want our business customers to be successful," she said. "We want people to achieve their financial goals, whether it's buying a car or sending a kid to college."

As Columbia has expanded across the region, so has Dressel's profile grown within the banking industry. She's a director of the American Bankers Association, one of only three women on the organization's board. The University of Washington-Tacoma's Milgard School of Business named her Business Leader of the Year for 2010. And last month, for the fourth time, she was named one of the 25 most powerful women in banking by American Banker.

Dressel, 59, brings a small-town sensibility to her job. She was born and raised in Colville, in Washington's northeast corner. Her parents owned a jewelry and gifts store there, where Dressel worked as a girl.

"I did everything from a lousy job of wrapping packages — gee, I was bad at that — to taking care of customers," she said. "In a small community, you get to know your customers really well. If someone comes in to buy jewelry, there's always a story behind that. It wasn't just like buying groceries or something — you get to know their likes and dislikes, and you become a part of their lives."

Dressel didn't see retail in her future, but neither was banking her first career choice. Rather, it was politics that stirred her early passions.

"I was going to be a political scientist, and I knew that from the age of 7," she said. "I remember, every four years, looking forward to the national political conventions." She enrolled at the UW because, at the time, it had one of the state's few graduate-level political-science programs.

By the time Dressel graduated in 1974, her plans had shifted toward law school. Her new husband was finishing up his business degree at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, and Dressel was looking for something to do until he graduated, when she expected to start applying to law schools.

So she took a job as a commercial real-estate loan clerk at the Tacoma branch of Bank of California (now Union Bank). "I was looking for something 9-to-5, Monday to Friday, and I thought, 'Banking — that seems like a good short-term thing.' "

Instead, Dressel spent the next 14 years at the bank in a variety of roles, from human resources to private banking (that is, personalized financial services for rich people). She left in 1988 to start up a private-banking operation for Puget Sound National Bank, Pierce County's dominant bank at the time.

When Puget was sold in 1993 to Key Bank, Dressel decided not to stay with the Ohio-based company. Instead, she planned to start her own financial-consulting business.

But the banking industry wasn't ready to let her go. Bill Philip, who had retired as Puget's CEO before the Key Bank sale closed, had joined tiny Columbia State Bank, then based in Bellevue. His mandate was to expand Columbia into Pierce County, and he reached out to Dressel.

"I harassed her to join us, and she did," said Philip, now 85. "She had the experience. She knew pretty much all the private-banking customers in Pierce County, so she was a natural. We all had fun getting the bank started, and she enjoyed working with her former clients and bringing them over to Columbia."

Dressel told Philip she'd stay at Columbia for a few months before starting her own firm, but "somehow six months has turned into 18 years." She rose rapidly at Columbia, becoming head of the bank in 2000 and of the holding company in 2003.

"She's a good administrator and has good people skills," Philip said. "She gets along well with the staff, the customers and the outside world."

Unlike many Washington banks, Columbia didn't overconcentrate its lending in real estate, which helped it come through the collapse of the mortgage bubble and ensuing financial crisis in fairly strong shape.

It acquired two failed banks last year and three so far this year; Columbia's asset base has grown from $3.1 billion at the end of 2008 to nearly $4.8 billion as of Sept. 30.

That growth, Dressel said, has strengthened Columbia and enables it to offer more services to its customers. But she acknowledges that, as more and more Columbia Bank branches pop up around the Northwest (it now has 104), it runs the risk of being seen as just another big bank.

"The really, really large banks — they have lines of business we'd never participate in — but we get lumped in with the very large banks," she said. "We didn't want people to have to give things up to come bank with us, but we still wanted to take care of people in a community-bank style, in terms of the care and attention they get."

Drew DeSilver: 206-464-3145 or ddesilver@seattletimes.com

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