The Sustainable Banker
Forget the sheriff, the outlaw, the posse riding through town—it’s the banker that Dave Williams MAT ’68 watches out for in old Westerns. “He was the best businessman in the community because he knew all the businesses in town. He knew how it all worked,” he says.
Williams, too, wants to know how it all works, and that’s how he explains finding himself directing a bank. “This is the last place on earth I would have guessed I’d end up,” he says of his CEO position at ShoreBank Pacific. As he talks, he lounges comfortably in an armchair, rests his feet on a wooden coffee table and stirs his glass of hot neon Tang with a plastic fork. “Bankers are considered staid and conservative folk. That’s not me.”
Williams says he agreed to run ShoreBank (he joined the company in 2000 and works out of its Portland office) because of its pioneering mission to steer clients toward improving their environment, community, and social ethos. The small commercial bank (chartered in Washington State, FDIC insured) was born from a 15-year partnership between the nonprofit environmental initiative Ecotrust, and the huge financial holding company ShoreBank Corp. of Chicago. It serves clients in Oregon and Washington and is headquartered in the harbor village of Ilwaco, Washington—a town founded by one of Williams’ ancestors.
The bank focuses its lending in sustainable, value-added resource-based industries such as fishing, forestry, agriculture, and green building. The goal is to help the local economy grow while fostering community connections and encouraging borrowers to treat their employees well. The bank’s annual report even suggests steps clients can take to reduce their environmental footprint. “What’s so exciting about this place is that we can really be part of the economy, as opposed to standing back and being detached like a typical banker,” Williams says.
His goal these days is to expand the community angle. “If we were 10 times the size we would have enough contacts in enough places that we could bring the guy in Bellingham to meet the guy in Coos Bay and put them together in a way that would enhance their businesses,” he says.
Asked whether this do-good approach to banking means ShoreBank is less competitive than its peers, Williams laughs. “We’re a ruthlessly for-profit institution,” he says. The bank is growing at 25 to 30 percent a year, and if earnings weren’t reinvested for growth, he estimates they would be equal to those of other banks. Reluctantly, he admits that there are some things his bank can’t do—such as save the world. “A bank can, because of its perspective, lay out a vision for how the world ought to be to help make it better,” he says. “But we can’t make anything happen by itself.”
That’s a frustration for Williams, who—if nothing else—is a self-starter. He’s run through numerous careers—teaching high school physics (the motivation for pursuing his M.A.T. at Reed); working in robotics, oil, and gas; pulling a large carwash manufacturer out of bankruptcy; running a sailboat company in Taiwan; raising money to start Costco. He started out in business before it was even legal for him to hold a job. At 11 he worked the Washington oyster beds and at 14 he ran a gill net boat for the family oyster business, while his friends in Portland hung out by the pool. “My college roommate and I were joking recently about who has held the most jobs,” he says. The roommate is ahead so far, but just barely. “There are still lots of other things I want to do in life,” Williams says. “Come the 48-hour day, I’ll be delighted.”
Despite all his ambition and energy, Williams has stayed close to home, both geographically and, it turns out, in his career. His grandfather was also a banker, heading up the credit department for U.S. Bank. “He knew all the local businesses,” Williams remembers. He thinks he’s following the same script. “Maybe I’m not your father’s banker,” Williams says, “but I might be your grandfather’s.”