What’s next for First Independent workers?

Four employees share their plans as Sterling Bank takes over operations

By Gordon Oliver, Columbian business editor

Published:

 

Run by a family, First Independent Bank became an extended family for some of the people who worked there. But after good times and its tough final years, First Independent’s long run in Clark and Skamania counties ended Wednesday. In its place is a much newer Washington state upstart Spokane-based Sterling Bank, operating in five states and in expansion mode, which acquired the Vancouver bank’s 14 branches and most of its assets.

The transition affects hundreds of careers and has stirred strong reactions from those who have invested a portion of their professional lives within First Independent. While most First Independent employees have shifted to Sterling, some are on notice that their jobs might only last through a midyear transition. Others have been laid off or are retiring, and a few will work for existing or newly created companies managed by First Independent’s ownership family, the Firstenburgs.

A long relationship between the bank, its employees and its community has ended.

First Independent traces its roots to the founding of the Ridgefield State Bank in 1910, but its modern history began when E.W. Firstenburg abandoned a teaching career in 1936 to become an assistant bank teller. He eventually became majority shareholder and purchased the bank in 1950, merging it with other banks into First Independent in 1954. At its peak, First Independent operated 24 branches in Clark and Skamania counties. Firstenburg remained active almost until his death in August 2010 at age 97. By then, his was one of the nation’s last family-owned banks.

By the numbers

First Independent by the numbers: Employee numbers in each category are estimates, based on percentages provided by Sterling Bank.

Full-time employees on Feb. 29, the bank’s final day, 243. Of those who are leaving: 18 were laid off, 7.4 percent; 6 are retiring, 2.5 percent; 9 are going to Firstenburg family companies, 3.7 percent; 209 are transitioning to Sterling Bank, 86 percent.

David Bristol, First Independent’s chief legal officer and executive vice president, says he’s one of the employees leaving close friendships behind.

Bristol, 50, was hired to help the bank through a major expansion, but that went by the wayside as the economy tanked. Instead, he helped craft a survival strategy and prepared the bank for its sale, four years after he was hired on. He’ll work temporarily for the Firstenburg family, then faces an uncertain professional future.

“The last year or so has been difficult because there is a sense this is a family institution that has been here for 100 years,” said Bristol, whose own family had owned a construction business. “Even though we have selected a community bank that will be respectful to our community, you are getting a sense that this is coming to an to end.”

The Columbian interviewed four First Independent employees on the eve of their departure from First Independent. These employees are heading four different directions: retirement; a layoff and new career; working for the Firstenburg family; and transitioning to Sterling. Comments have been edited for clarity and brevity.

Transitioning: Community banking transition leader

Name: Renee Newman.

Residence: Salmon Creek.

Age: 42.

Family: Husband and two sons, ages 9 and 4.

Years with First Independent: Four.

Last job: Director of retail banking.

Favorite part of job: The opportunity to outline, implement and execute. I often say that there was a convergence of stars, in terms of the amount of talent we have here. We have some amazing people.

Sometimes I think First Independent was the little bank that could. We’re just a small community bank, but we’ve been able to do so many wonderful things and make such a difference in our clients’ lives and our employees’ lives, and that’s all been so fulfilling to me.

Most difficult part of job: When we see a need we want to be able to respond quickly, and as a small organization we are adept at doing that. But sometimes when we need to make significant change, because we have to rely on vendors or third parties, it takes a little longer than you anticipate or expect.

The recession’s impact: For me it was thinking, “How do you reinvent banking?” or “Do you need to reinvent banking?” My ninth-grade biology teacher a phrase on her wall the first day of school: “Adapt, migrate, or become extinct.”

We decided to go back to the basics, Banking 101. It’s all about our relationships with our clients and with our employees. It’s that simple.

Memories of E.W. Firstenburg: I remember meeting with him when we were working on our community banking strategy. When we came back from the meeting, everybody wanted to know what E.W. had said. Even though he wasn’t involved in the day to day, he was very engaged.

Looking ahead: The opportunities and choices for employees transitioning to Sterling are significant and I’m really excited about that. We’ve already seen one situation where an employee has family in California and she saw an opening and interviewed and Sterling offered her a job. We also have other opportunities for people in the organization. I’m excited about what that’s going to look like and feel like.

Working for the Firstenburgs: Credit assistant, Firstenburg family firms

Name: Nikki Terry.

Age: 33.

Family: Married, two sons.

Years with First Independent: 13 in the past 15, interrupted by maternity leave.

Residence: Vancouver.

Last job: Executive assistant for credit administration.

Favorite part of job: I’ve met amazing people, co-workers and members of the Firstenburg family. The Firstenburgs are extremely family oriented. I’m able to put my family first and they work around that. Some people here have stayed here a really long time. I work for people today who took me out for my 21st birthday.

Most difficult part of job: There’s nothing that comes to mind that stands out as awful or anything like that. I honestly can’t say anything bad.

The recession’s impact: I was in credit administration, which is also known as credit risk management, so the recession actually made our jobs busier. I didn’t experience the cutbacks or cuts in hours. We were extremely busy over the last three years.

Memories of E.W. Firstenburg: He always parked in the parking garage on the first floor, so you could see him coming in. The car was always just a little bit crooked in the parking spot. It’s hard to get in that first parking spot in the garage.

Looking ahead: I had a gut feeling in November that my job was going away. Sterling has a chief credit officer, he has an assistant. They don’t need two. A lot of the stuff that I have experience in, Sterling does from Spokane, and I wasn’t willing to relocate. I assumed I didn’t have a job. Then the Firstenburgs approached me to work for the family business. It makes you feel good about the job you’ve done.

I honestly don’t know what my role will be in the new company. There are two parts of the family business. There’s the holding company that’s somewhat separate. There’s the credit management side of it, and I believe seven of us will work there. Because we’re a small group and have a lot to do there will probably be a lot of cross-training. My duties will be “other duties as assigned.”

New career: Selling sponsorships for the Portland Winterhawks hockey team

Name: Dean Vrooman.

Residence: Tualatin, Ore.

Age: 58.

Family: Wife and two grown children.

Years with First Independent: Four.

Last job: Loan assistant in commercial banking.

Favorite part of job: Serving clients. First Independent was very client-oriented and well organized. You knew who to talk to get things done and you could solve a client problem immediately. And every time you did that you learned a little bit more. Now that I’m leaving I have a very good knowledge of banking in lots of different areas, and I have First Independent to thank for that.

Most difficult part of job: The day I found out I was one of the ones that wasn’t going to go on. I had great meetings with the Sterling people. It didn’t have anything to do with performance it’s just the way it is. It was a sad day, but it turned out it may be a blessing in disguise because it led me back into the field I was in before. I thought I would have to find another bank to do what I love to do.

The recession’s impact: I was in business development. It was hard for everybody to watch the stock market go down a thousand points a day, but it was especially challenging in my job. The Firstenburg family worked to minimize attrition. There was a very small cut in pay, but it was evenly proportioned and as small as possible. They were really employee-oriented through the whole thing, even though the bank was going through some tough times.

Memories of E.W. Firstenburg: I knew I was going to be hired, so I went to meet him at the Waterford branch (now called the Touchmark at Fairway Village branch). He was 94 or 95 at the time and he was there working. It was incredible. I got to sit with him for half an hour or 45 minutes, and he told me how the bank started. He shared some tremendous stories about how important it is to be a community bank. While I was there he interrupted our conversation several times to serve clients. He came over as such a warm person.

Looking ahead: If my return to the Winterhawks doesn’t work out, I feel like I have a chance to get back in banking. I would talk to Sterling in a minute. I met some great people from there. I think their desire is to continue First Independent’s reputation. There’s a lot in common between Sterling and First Independent. That’s why the Firstenburgs chose them, because they are the smallest big bank that made sense.

Retirement:

Name: Donna Rush.

Residence: Stevenson.

Age: 64.

Family: Married, husband retired. Four grown children and five grandchildren.

Years with First Independent: Started in 1975 as a teller at Columbia Gorge Bank in Stevenson, which became part of First Independent in 1984.

Last job: Vice president for learning and development.

Favorite part of job: I always had someone I could go to find answers and I always knew I could make suggestions and have my voice heard. So it wasn’t one of those things where you’re nobody.

Most difficult part of job: It’s been watching the last few years as interest rates have gone down. Having to tell clients retirees and people on fixed incomes that their investments are really being hurt. When we went through the ’80s, we were paying 20 percent on investments, and we’re now paying one-tenth of a percent. That’s difficult.

The recession’s impact: I wasn’t exuberant with my spending, so when the economic situation meant everyone had to tighten their belts more, I thought, “Gosh, why didn’t we start doing that before, maybe it wouldn’t be so hard on us now?” So it was exhilarating, in some respects, that people are catching on.

Memories of E.W. Firstenburg: I enjoyed sharing things I’d learned about how innovative he was, how smart he was, how dedicated and passionate he was. There was just so much to learn from him. He was wonderful.

Looking ahead: First Independent used to have a saying that “We’re big enough to serve you, small enough to know you.” That’s even greater with Sterling, because Sterling has so many more resources that we didn’t have as First Independent. Now we can move up to the next level. For our clients, we’ll be able to provide much better service. And employees are going to have better benefits.