President and CEO, Columbia Banking System

Melanie Dressel manages by walking around.

Each year, the president and chief executive of Columbia Banking System in Tacoma, Wash., makes it a priority to visit each of the bank's branches, as well as its various departments, to help her better understand what is working for customers and what the bank can be doing better. "We want to engender a culture where we can make informed decisions based upon what is going on in the real world," Dressel explained.

It is a practice she started early in her tenure as CEO and has continued even as she has built Columbia into one of the Pacific Northwest's largest community banks. When Dressel took over as CEO in 2003, the bank had less than $2 billion of assets and around two dozen branches, mostly in and around Tacoma. Ten acquisitions later, Columbia is now creeping up on $10 billion of assets and has 145 branches in three states,

Growth through acquisitions is just part of Columbia's story. The company posted a record profit of $98.8 million last year and Dressel said that is due in large part to its success in attracting high-quality bankers and giving them the freedom to do what they see as best for their customers.

"I think the most important thing is to create opportunities for our bankers and then not get in their way," Dressel said.

As one of the industry's few female chief executives, Dressel relishes the opportunity to mentor or advise talented young women. She particularly loves when a male bank CEO asks her to give advice and share her experiences with his daughter or one of his female executives.

Dressel hadn't initially planned on becoming a banker; she was on her way to law school when someone suggested that she give banking a try first. She started out as a commercial real estate loan clerk before becoming a manager's secretary at Bank of California in the 1970s. She moved steadily up the ranks over the next 14 years as management, recognizing her skills as a leader, kept handing her more challenging assignments.

"They saw leadership ability in me and knew that I could fill in that slot," Dressel said. "It was great being with a group of people that kept me in mind."

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