At Columbia Bank, we are keenly aware that the No. 1 reason why businesses and individuals choose to partner with a community bank is the result of long-standing relationships. Customers want to walk into the bank and see the same, familiar faces year after year. This much we know. So the question for expansion-minded institutions like ours is: how do you remain a community bank as you grow?

For us, the key has been to enlist every member of our team to focus on preserving the relationship-centric culture that made our growth possible in the first place.

In just five years Columbia Bank has acquired seven community banks throughout the Northwest, growing from 33 to 102 branches. With the majority of this growth taking place in the past two years, we needed to ramp up and learn how to scale quickly. In most cases, our acquisitions expanded our footprint into regions of the Northwest where people were not familiar with our brand.

We operate under the guiding principle that if we take good care of our customers and each other, our shareholders will be well served. Driven by this belief, we've managed to integrate 500 new employees in under five years, with a high degree of success. While the process has not been without its challenges, there are a few lessons we learned along the way:

- When identifying an organization for a potential acquisition, ensure that the location and culture of the bank you are considering is in line with your company's. As an example, when Columbia Bank acquired Columbia River Bank in The Dalles, Ore., we felt confident that the organization shared common beliefs in customer service and community support.

- Communicate your desire to invest in the community by identifying what is important in each local market, and immerse the business in supporting those specific initiatives. In The Dalles, we are a sponsor of the Fort Dalles Pro Rodeo, the premier community event. In Clarkston, Wash., we support special signage for Lewis-Clark State College, located just over the border in Oregon. When we entered these markets through the acquisitions of Columbia River Bank and Bank of Whitman, respectively, it was key to pinpoint community identifiers like these and back them financially and through volunteer hours. From an economic development standpoint, we continue to invest in each community by lending to entrepreneurs and small business owners.

- Address the change. Upon the acquisition of each new branch, we implemented a system conversion process that included online resources and personal assistance, with existing employees placed in each branch to serve as ambassadors. The process was developed initially as a functional tool for sharing protocol and procedures. However, we quickly realized that its biggest value was the social and cultural benefits that grew from what became a "buddy system" to help new employees learn the ropes of Columbia Bank.

- Ensure leadership is transparent and accessible. As the cultural steward of any business, the CEO must make as much face-to-face contact with employees as possible. In 2005, it wasn't very difficult for me to visit 34 branches at least once, if not multiple times in a year. As we've grown to 102 branches, it's obviously become more difficult to make the contact but we do everything logistically possible to make it happen.

Columbia Bank has been fortunate to experience outstanding growth, not just since our founding in 1993, but in the past five years especially. Our experience has reinforced our belief in the importance of culture and the critical role it plays in our success. It starts from the top, with leadership. But it really becomes a powerful force for success when it is shared by everyone in the organization. If you have that alignment, your customers will know it. They'll appreciate your business and you will thrive.

Smart growth is challenging, and can be daunting at times. But if you remain true to your principles, it can be achieved to everyone's benefit.

 

Melanie Dressel is the president and CEO of Columbia Bank.

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