Columbia Bank president and CEO Melanie Dressel, a longtime Tacoma banking icon, died unexpectedly Sunday night at her Key Peninsula home of unknown natural causes. She was 64. Dean J. Koepfler Staff file, 2012
Columbia Bank president and CEO Melanie Dressel, a longtime Tacoma banking icon, died unexpectedly Sunday night at her Key Peninsula home of unknown natural causes. She was 64. Dean J. Koepfler Staff file, 2012

Business

Head of Columbia Bank dies unexpectedly at age 64

February 20, 2017 06:18 PM

UPDATED February 22, 2017 07:09 AM

Melanie Dressel’s oven timer went off while she was on a weekend conference call to acquire the Bank of Astoria.

“Everyone on the conference call goes: ‘Melanie, what are you doing?’ ” son Robert Dressel said Monday, recounting the family story.

The president and CEO of Tacoma-based Columbia Bank told them she was making chocolate chip cookies to send to her son at college.

He got the cookies. And she got the bank.

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Dressel died unexpectedly of unknown natural causes Sunday night at her Key Peninsula home at the age of 64.

“She cared about every single person, the CFO at the bank down to the janitor,” her son said. “How she ran that bank, in a lot of ways, was how she ran her family. She cared for each individual person. She wanted to make sure that everyone was happy, ahead of her own happiness.”

During her 17-year tenure as president and chief executive officer, Dressel oversaw the bank’s growth to more than $9 billion in assets and more than 140 branches in Washington, Oregon and Idaho.

The expansion across the Northwest included an agreement last month to merge Eugene, Oregon’s Pacific Continental Corp. into Columbia — a transaction valued at about $644.1 million.

Interim plans for Columbia’s future weren’t released Monday.

William T. Weyerhaeuser, chairman of Columbia Banking System’s board, said in a statement: “Our thoughts and prayers are with her family at this difficult time. The Board of Directors and our management team are working closely together to ensure a smooth and effective transition.

“Further details will be available in the coming days.”

CARING AT HOME AND WORK

At home, Dressel showed her devotion with her weekly cookie packages, and by constantly flying down on weekends to watch her son play football for Humboldt State University in California.

At work, she showed it in the attention she paid to employees in the three-state banking system she ran.

Hadley Robbins, now Columbia’s chief operating officer, said he was tasked with arranging a tour of Oregon branches for Dressel when Columbia acquired West Coast Bank in 2012.

He picked about 15 for her to visit, which he figured could be done in a day.

“She said: ‘No, no, Hadley, every branch. Every branch,’ ” Robbins remembered Monday.

And they spent a week driving across the state to each of the roughly 75 locations.

“At the outset of acquisitions, people are concerned about all that’s taking place, and she wanted to be there to tell them that things would be OK,” Robbins said. “And if they had ideas, she was open to hearing them.”

That was her standard practice after buying a bank, and she kept a schedule afterward to routinely visit branches and loan teams, he said.

THE JEWELER’S DAUGHTER

Dressel is survived by her husband, Bob, adult sons Robert and Brent, and two grandchildren.

She was born in Colville, where her father owned a jewelry store and was the chief of the volunteer fire department, son Robert said.

“I think a lot of what she does she learned from him,” he added. “Going the extra mile for people.”

The jeweler opened the store on a weekend when a husband forgot his anniversary. And when the jeweler’s daughter rose through the ranks of the banking industry and found someone who couldn’t get to their bank to deposit a check, she figured out how to make it happen.

Dressel graduated from the University of Washington with a political science degree, then went to work at the Bank of California in Tacoma.

Next she moved to Puget Sound National Bank and joined Columbia when it was founded.

One of those founders, Bill Philip, recruited her to be the head of private banking.

“We were friends for years, and I just worked on her and worked on her,” he said. “She finally agreed to do it.”

Like any good executive, Philip said, Dressel was good at working with people.

“Half the battle of being a good leader is having the people working for you respect and like you, and she had that,” he said.

When Philip retired, the bank’s board chose someone to replace him whom he didn’t find as qualified for the job as Dressel.

So he got her the job instead.

Asked how, Philip he said he spent “three or four or five or six months” working with Dressel’s husband to persuade individual board members.

“You don’t know the hours I spent on the telephone,” he said.

And finally, the board put Dressel in the position.

“I respected Melanie,” Philip said. “I just knew she’d do a better job.”

A LEADER FOR WOMEN

Dressel became the head of Columbia Bank in 2000 and the CEO of its parent company, Columbia Banking System, in 2003.

Asked about obstacles she faced as a woman in a male-dominated field, Philip said: “I guess I’m different, but I recognized a long time ago that women are good at certain things. I think they’re good at managing people and running things. I’ve always respected them for that. I had no qualms about asking her to run Columbia.”

She made him proud. Columbia reported a record fourth-quarter net income of $30.7 million in January.

Dressel told the Puget Sound Business Journal in 2014 that she’d seen attitudes toward women change during her time in the industry. But she also told the Journal: “Even today, when we are on a road show visiting with investors, if you have a driver taking you from location to location, they think my male CFO is the CEO. It’s like I’m there to carry his bags or something.”

Humor, she told the journal, was her best defense.

Perhaps because there weren’t many women in leadership as Dressel rose through the industry, she took an interest in mentoring others, said UW Regent Herb Simon, a friend of more than 30 years.

She and Simon were at a ribbon-cutting ceremony last year at the University of Washington Tacoma, at which the student body president addressed those gathered.

“Right after she spoke, Melanie came up and said: ‘Would you introduce me to her? I would like her to come to my office, and I would like to get to know her.’”

Dressel wanted to find out where the young woman wanted to go in life and what she could do to help, Simon said.

“This was something that was really important to her, to see females growing in the private sector and business and entrepreneurship, leadership,” he said. “Melanie was an extremely busy person based on the positions she held, but Melanie always had time for people.”

In addition to leading Columbia, Dressel chaired the Board of Puget Sound Energy, and previously she chaired the boards of the Executive Council for a Greater Tacoma and the Washington Bankers Association. She was also a member of various other boards.

She was part of the American Bankers Council and had been a member of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco’s Community Depository Institutions Advisory Council.

A SHOCKING LOSS

Despite her many commitments, Dressel found time to make full Sunday dinners for her family, where she enjoyed playing with her grandkids.

“It’s just such a shock,” Robert Dressel said of his mother’s passing. “It doesn’t make a lot of sense right now, and I don’t know if it will.”

As for her success at the bank, she wasn’t one to take credit.

“In her mind, it was never about her,” Simon said. “If you were to ask her about the job she did building the bank, she would say: ‘My customers built the bank.’ 

Every branch of it.

Alexis Krell:

253-597-8268,

@amkrell