Gary Garrett could be selling shoes.
Thirty years ago, he was a management trainee at J.C. Penney in Yakima, where he also studied business at Yakima Valley Community College.
National Bank of Washington offered a college friend a promotion from messenger to teller, but first the friend had to find someone to fill his current position.
He approached Garrett, who in turn sought advice from his father.
“He asked me ‘Do I want to sell shoes in my 40s or do I want to be a businessman in my 40s,”’ he recalled. “I chose banking.”
Such as it was.
Garrett said his duties involved ferrying bags of checks and other paperwork between National Bank’s six branches in the Yakima-Ellensburg area.
And each morning he and representatives of other banks in the area would gather and exchange checks. When accounts between banks were out of balance, the officials would write checks to cover the difference.
“It was pretty antiquated,” Garrett said.
But he was determined that messenger would be just a jumping off point for a career in banking.
“I was the first messenger they ever had who wore a coat and tie everyday,” he said.
And Garrett identified three bank employees - all happened to be women - whom he considered the hardest, most astute workers. He copied their habits.
“I really learned a lot from those women,” he said.
Now regional senior vice president for Wells Fargo Bank, Garrett said he continually looked at the best people around him as he earned new promotions, always trying to adopt their best characteristics.
“I’m kind of a mongrel manager,” he said.
Although he has periodically attended various banking schools, Garrett said customers and his fellow employees have provided at least as much education over the years.
He said the broad experience gained working in diverse areas of a bank is less accessible for the more specialized trainees entering the industry today.
But even with more than 20 years of seasoning behind him, Garrett said he thought in 1991 he was being asked to bite off more than he could chew.
John Dean, president of First Interstate Bank of Washington - National Bank had changed its name in 1981 - urged him to move from Yakima to Spokane, where he was to assume oversight of all the bank’s Eastern Washington, North Idaho and Montana operations.
“I declined it,” Garrett said.
But it was an offer he could not refuse. The president called again, and reassured Garrett “you’re the right person.”
He arrived in Spokane just in time for the two-day conference organized to reassess the Momentum economic development effort.
“I didn’t even go to the office,” Garrett said, adding that the experience sold him on the city.
He went on to join the Momentum board of directors, as well as those of the United Way and Holy Family Hospital Foundation, of which he was president for three years.
His non-banking activity also includes skimming area lakes with his wife in a 20-foot runabout. Their two sons graduated from Eastern Washington University.
Garrett himself has been getting an intense update on state-of-the-art banking.
Wells Fargo, which purchased First Interstate last spring, is regarded as a leader in the application of computer information systems to banking services. Garrett and his staff found themselves boarding a fast-moving stagecoach.
“There was a lot of capital spent to bring us up to speed in a hurry,” he said.
Wells Fargo has acknowledged that the transition to its systems sowed confusion early on in the switch from First Interstate.
But Garrett said the technology gives customers enormous new capabilities to monitor and manage their funds by phone and computer. Excess cash, for example, can be invested overnight or used to pay down debt at the stroke of a few keys.
“The world of banking is different than what it used to be,” Garrett said. “It’s an information business.”
Garrett said he is pleased with the way his team of commercial lending experts has responded. Wells Fargo, which took over the First Interstate branches in Eastern Washington last November, has quickly established itself, he said.
He also oversees a commercial lending office in Boise. Another vice president, Jim Hanson, is responsible for retail branch operations in the same areas.
With the new territory has come expanded power, Garrett said. Wells Fargo tells managers to run their operation as if they own it.
If mistakes are made, they get them corrected.
“My authority has expanded a great deal,” he said.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Photo