Remembering Melanie Dressel, mentor to a generation of bankers

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Melanie Dressel knew she was meant to be a trailblazer for women in the banking industry.

Dressel used stories to illustrate that point. She once recalled a business trip where the driver mistook her male chief financial officer as the CEO and, even worse, assumed she was there to carry his bags.

While entertaining on a basic level, her stories served a greater purpose of inspiring other women in the banking industry.

“Every once in a while, there'd be that little story,” said Laurie Stewart, president and CEO of Sound Community Bank in Seattle. “Those little stories were kind of the key to really knowing that she got … how much further there is for us to go,”

Dressel, who died unexpectedly on Sunday at 64, certainly did her part to erase stereotypes in the banking industry, while laying the groundwork for a new generation of female bankers.

As CEO of Columbia Banking System, Dressel turned a relatively small bank in Tacoma, Wash., into a regional power that will exceed $10 billion in assets when it completes what will likely be the longtime executive’s last acquisition. While a devoted banking advocate, she wasn’t someone who hogged the spotlight or made a big deal about being an industry vanguard.

“Melanie's passing is a loss to” banking, said Patti Husic, president and CEO of Centric Bank in Harrisburg, Pa. “She was a pioneer. She was very passionate about our industry.”

Her leadership was evident in efforts to mentor a new generation of female bankers. She once told American Banker that she enjoyed it when a male colleague would ask her to give advice to a daughter or a female executive.

“She believed helping women in banking, and in business in general, was important,” said her son, Robert Dressel III, who noted that his mother would also make time to meet with female executives from other industries. “She made an effort to seek out these women when they were young and let them know that there were other women out there.”

An eagerness to inspire others extended beyond the C-suite, said William Weyerhaeuser, Columbia’s chairman.

“She spent quite a bit of time meeting with groups of employees,” Weyerhaeuser said. “It didn’t matter what level they were in the bank. It was important to her to establish that connection and transmit the values that were critical to our culture and our success.”

She often led by example in areas such as networking.

Kumi Yamamoto Baruffi, Columbia’s general counsel, learned that firsthand after joining Dressel at American Banker’s Most Powerful Women in Banking event in October.

“There were many high-level banking executives who attended the event, and she knew … many of them,” Baruffi said. “That’s where I learned the value of making connections from a person who was a major connector – and who made it look easy.”

Dressel was motivated by a commitment to Columbia and its employees, she said as part of a survey for American Banker’s Women in Banking. She would annually visit every Columbia branch – or nearly 150 offices in three states – and department to better understand everyone’s challenges and opportunities.

Dressel, who enjoyed motivating others, often found herself inspired by those interactions. “Many wonderful ideas arise from these meetings,” she recalled.

Her influence went beyond inspiring other women, people close to her said.

“She was a role model … for everyone in the industry,” said Stephen Klein, a lawyer at Miller Nash Graham & Dunn and who had worked with Dressel for about 20 years. “She transcended gender. She had a firm, but gentle, way with people.”

Dressel was also tenacious and competitive. For instance, she spent 18 months courting Pacific Continental before the Eugene, Ore., company agreed to sell to Columbia earlier this year. She also had a knack for juggling commitments of varying sizes, haggling for Pacific Continental while simultaneously making preparations for a chili fundraiser.

“Melanie figured out how to get the deal signed, go home in a snowstorm, and make two vats of chili all in a day’s time,” Baruffi said.

Columbia has acquired 10 banks since early 2007, becoming the buyer of choice for a number of banks in the Pacific Northwest. Dressel was largely to credit for that, industry experts said.

Columbia “went in with a friendlier strategy that represented a real partnership versus a takeover,” said Aaron James Deer, an analyst at Sandler O’Neill.

“I think the culture that Columbia has had, in terms of being a very community-focused bank, is one that resonates well with other smaller banks that view themselves in the same light, even if they eventually join up with a larger institution,” Deer said.

Dressel also remained resolute a decade ago as analysts and investors pressed her for being unwilling to go after riskier credits. Her decisions paid off as Columbia’s aversion to aggressively chase growth helped it weather the crisis and rake in a number of failed banks. In 2011, she was selected as one of American Banker’s three Community Bankers of the Year.

Dressel’s steady hand during the crisis impressed many of her counterparts, including Ray Davis, executive chairman at Umpqua Holdings in Portland, Ore.

“When I think of Melanie, I think of how strong of a leader she was,” Davis said. “She led her people while motivating them to reach the goals she set for the company.”

Weyerhaeuser, though discussing the challenge his board faces finding a new CEO at Columbia, still seemed to sum up the gaping hole Dressel’s passing has left among the ranks of banking’s female leaders.

“It is human to hope we’ll find another Melanie, but we know that’s not possible,” Weyerhaeuser said. “We’ll do the best we can. Those are big shoes to fill. It will be challenge."

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