The banking industry lost a great leader on Feb. 19. As did her family and friends, of which I count myself as one.
In terms of business, Melanie Dressel was one of the most highly respected bank CEOs I have known. She skillfully managed Columbia Banking System through one of the worst financial crises we’ve seen in our lifetimes and created one of the strongest banks in the Pacific Northwest. Under her leadership, she developed a culture that produced excellent banking results. Columbia has all the hallmarks of a high-performance bank: strong profitability, excellent asset quality, superior funding and a deep management team that is ready and able to act.
What made Melanie a great leader was that she wasn’t afraid to make bold strategic decisions. Seeing an opportunity to take advantage of dislocation in the marketplace during the crisis, Melanie raised two rounds of offensive capital for a total of $360 million when it wasn’t clear that banks could raise capital. She was able to do that because the market trusted her and as a result, she positioned Columbia to become one of the leading banks in the region.
Following the capital raises, Melanie led her company through five failed-bank transactions with the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and three bank mergers, including one currently pending with Pacific Continental. Under her leadership, Columbia’s assets grew from $1.7 billion in 2003 to $12 billion today, assuming the Pacific Continental merger closes. And these actions have paid off for shareholders. Since she became CEO in February 2003, the total return in Columbia shares is 361%. Since the low point of the financial crisis in March 2009, that return is 939%. Both outpace the total returns, respectively, of 168% and 352% in the KBW Nasdaq Regional Banking Index and the 273% and 312% total return of the S&P 500.
Besides her accomplishments at Columbia, Melanie will be remembered for the mark she left on the banking industry as a whole. When I called on her for advice, she would always take the time to listen and provide me with a thoughtful reply. She was a champion for community bankers, having served on the Community Depository Institutions Advisory Council of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco and on the board of the American Bankers Association. She was also a role model for other women, having been named several times to the American Banker Magazine’s Top 25 Most Powerful Women in Banking.
As to her personal qualities, Melanie always appreciated those around her and gave credit to those who earned it. She was honest and sincere and I will forever remember her going out of her way at our KBW conferences to thank our staff who organized our events.
She treated people with respect and frequently spoke about the broader community and how she wanted to make it better. In her hometown of Tacoma, a city she cared deeply for, she worked tirelessly to bring high-paying, sustainable jobs to the region and donated her time and expertise to many local boards. She loved the outdoors and invited friends to her family tree farm behind her home to pick out and chop down a tree for the holidays. Rumor has it that she served her homemade chili for the group that came for this annual event. She also loved to fish and spend time in Alaska.
Melanie Dressel was an all-around exceptional person and we will all miss her greatly.