June 19, 2011 in Business

Caldwell: West Point trained local bankers to survive

By The Spokesman-Review
 

The U.S. Military Academy at West Point graduates about 1,000 second lieutenants each year.

Although trained to command men and women in combat, many leave the Army when their hitch is up and look for opportunities to use their leadership skills in civilian arenas.

Leading Spokane banks, for example.

Randy Fewel, president and chief executive officer of Inland Northwest Bank; Ezra Eckhardt, president and chief operating officer of Sterling Savings Bank; and Ralph Hamm III, senior vice president and regional manager of commercial lending for Wells Fargo, are all members of the Long Grey Line of academy graduates that stretches back to its founding in 1802.

Fewel graduated in 1971, Eckhardt in 1992, and Hamm in 1994.

None envisioned a career in banking while pushing through a rigorous, mostly mathematics and engineering, curriculum, and none turned to banking immediately when they decided to leave the Army. But all attribute some of their success to the discipline, adaptability and teamwork learned at the academy’s historic campus above the Hudson River.

They’ve needed all of it. The troubles of the American financial system, many self-inflicted, have tested Main Street banks as much as Wall Street.

At Sterling, Eckhardt and Chief Executive Officer Greg Seibly survived a 10-month trial by fire that ended last August with fulfillment of a $730 million recapitalization plan that averted a potential seizure by federal and state regulators.

“We sort of had to invent the plan as we went along,” says Eckhardt, who recalls one of the academy’s basic lessons – adapt and overcome.

The Spokane native and former paratrooper says Sterling officers had to constantly adjust their thinking during meetings with 150 investors, one of whom was the U.S. Treasury.

And, despite the pressure, they had to maintain an environment of stability for employees and customers, an effort so successful Sterling won the J.D. Power and Associates 2010 regional award for customer service.

Fewel says he learned humility on a campus studded with exceptional academic and athletic achievers.

“I think it’s one of the most important characteristics of a CEO,” he says, adding that an emphasis on collaboration – memorialized in the cadet maxim “cooperate, graduate” – has also been instructive.

A lover of numbers before he went to academy, Fewel says he took every math course the academy had to offer. That education helped take him from consumer loan officer at First National Bank – with a $1,000 lending limit – to his position today.

Hamm rattles off a list of academy lessons in teamwork, prioritizing, putting others first, and doing the right thing no matter the cost. When he went to business school after mustering out of the military, knowing how to work with a team was a tremendous advantage, he says.

To an extent, Hamm says, academy entrants by their nature have self-selected for command.

“I’m one of those who believe that management is learned and that leadership, a lot of those skills, are inherent,” Hamm says.

And applicable to the battlefield, or defending a financial institution against hostile economic forces.

Moving on

This will be my last business column. This week I start a transition over to the editorial page, where I will succeed Doug Floyd as editor.

Doug’s wisdom and integrity have contributed immeasurably to the character of The Spokesman-Review newsroom, and the betterment of the Spokane community. His knowledge of legislation and legislators seemingly goes back to the repeal of Prohibition.

Doug Floyds are irreplaceable.

Gary Crooks and I will try to carry on.

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