In Melanie Dressel’s home in Gig Harbor, she has bookshelves full of biographies. Her most recent addition to her collection is a book about President Abraham Lincoln. “I just love hearing how people did what they did … life has not been a straight line for any of these people,” she said. Like many of the great leaders she admires, Dressel has had to overcome some serious obstacles. After many years in banking, she became CEO of Tacoma-based Columbia Bank in 2003 and helped grow its 156 banking offices in Washington and Oregon. Then, when she was at the top of her game, the stock market plunged. Not faulted by fear and intrigued by interest, Dressel took the challenge by storm and Columbia Bank rode out the crisis. Today, she’s moving the company forward in its 20th year. Perhaps her stories will one day make for a good biography, too.
What’s the hardest thing about your job right now?
Nobody knows for sure if the economy is going to really start growing and that just makes my job tough.
What does it mean to be a community bank?
We try to support the community activities in all the communities (we’re located in) because those are the things that are important to people. We try to hire local people, because if you live and work in the same community you have more of a tendency to really care about what’s going on.
What got you through the economic crisis?
The most direct line I can draw is we stayed true to who we were during the entire cycle.
You’re a woman in business. Is it an equal playing field now?
It’s more equal than when I started in business, I have to say that. I don’t think that people intentionally set out to put roadblocks in front of women or certain groups but there still are situations where that is the case. I travel a lot with my CFO and both of the CFOs that I’ve worked with at Columbia Bank, they’re both men. And inevitably … the driver always thinks that I’m there to carry somebody’s briefcase. And it happens so often that I just find it humorous … I’ve never wasted a lot of time worrying about that kind of thing.
What should young professionals do more of?
If I had one piece of advice it would be don’t plan your life so well that you miss the opportunities as they present themselves because I certainly would not have this career if I had followed the path that I laid out for myself.
Who is your hero?
My dad. My dad is 92 and he owned a business in my hometown of Colville. And he was one of these people (it was a jewelry and gift shop) that if somebody forgot somebody’s birthday they’d call on a Sunday, which was my parents’ only day off, and he wouldn’t think twice about going down and opening the store and letting them buy something.
What got you to the top?
It’s (a difficult question) and I get asked that and I don’t think I’ve responded the same way twice to it. I think one thing is that I’m just a life-long learner. I’ve always loved to read and I’m inquisitive and that caused me to really want to understand a lot about banks.
What time do you wake up to go to work? I get up at 4:30 every morning, not because I’m a morning person, it’s just what it takes and I usually get home at about 7-ish.
Was there ever a time when you dealt with failure? I’ve worked for three financial institutions in my career, and when I changed the first time, I had been with The Bank of California for 14 years and I was still relatively young — I was 35 years old and I really worried about that. I thought “shoot what if I just completely fail in this next job,” and that weighed on my consideration a lot. And then it was like a light bulb came on finally. That, ‘OK, so I fail.’ I think that I’ve got enough confidence that I can go find another job. Once you get over that threshold of not being so afraid that you’re going to fail, I just think it opens up a lot of doors.
What, besides your family, could you not live without?
I couldn’t live without being able to read.
Why stay in Tacoma?
We owe a great debt to Tacoma. When we started — it will be 20 years this month — we had no idea what to expect. All we knew is that we wanted to bring a hometown bank back to Tacoma. And literally the night before we opened up the doors, I lay awake and thought, “What if nobody comes?” And then I thought, “Oh my gosh, what if everybody comes, you know, are we prepared for this?” That morning … there were people lined up around the block to open up accounts. This is really where we got our start. This is our hometown community and we have just had tremendous support from Tacoma.
Work/life balance. Is it a challenge?
It is. I’ve been very fortunate, I’ve been married to the same man, it will be 40 years next month, and we just really function in a partnership. We had a deal when our boys were young that one of us would always be home for dinner with them every single night. And a lot of people didn’t think that I was married because anything during the week, I went by myself … I never lost sight of the fact that my job is temporary. At the end of the day, with any luck, you just have great family that you’ll spend a lot of years with.