When Julie Miller began her banking career as a teller in the late 1970s, customers still frequented branch offices, where they would find bankers who could help them with anything that came up, whether it was a mortgage or managing business cash.
“We call ourselves the dinosaurs,” said Miller, 56. “You knew how to do every job in a bank.”
Miller still identifies with those branch-dwelling generalists of a bygone era. So when Bend-based Bank of the Cascades, where Miller was executive vice president in Central Oregon, was acquired by First Interstate Bank of Billings, Montana, this summer, Miller was pleased to find that her new bosses have a lot of throwback ideas. “That’s one of the nice things about First Interstate Bank — it’s more like banking used to be,” she said.
First Interstate completed the acquisition on May 30 and will change Bank of the Cascades’ corporate identity on Monday. The Montana bank also named Miller president of a region that covers all of Oregon outside of Portland, Salem and the north coast. The region includes approximately 300 employees. Miller sat down with The Bulletin to talk about her career. Her responses have been edited for length and content.
Q: Banking was not your intended career, so how did you get started at the age of 18?
A: I wanted to do fashion design. I was working at Nordstrom at Washington Square (shopping mall in the Portland area), really wasn’t going anywhere. A friend of mine’s mother said, ‘Julie should apply for a job at a bank.’ I did. I’ve been in banking now for 38 years.
Q: What did you like about it?
A: It’s such an interesting combination of what you get to do each day. You had do deal with people, and when you’re dealing with people and their money, it’s always a puzzle. Once I started getting into lending, that was what I really enjoyed the most. I’d say construction lending would be my favorite job that I did at the bank, which I learned here at Bank of the Cascades. You get to see something tangible. I can drive around town and say, ‘I financed that building. I financed that home.’ And it’s there. It’s enduring. That’s a pretty good feeling.
Q: Is there anything you learned during the housing crash that’s relevant?
A: The character of a person will repay the bank, or a debt. What we saw (was) unexpected. A person you might think you couldn’t rely on will come to the bank: ‘Here’s $10 this week to pay back the loan.’ Incredible character. And then the reverse of that. The person that had the money chose to walk away from debt. We all have to live together in this town afterwards, and that was hard. It’s still hard to go to a grocery store and look at someone across the aisle that you know walked away from a loan they had at our bank, or another bank. They walked away from it all.
Q: So how does a banker assess character?
A: Make sure you really know your customer, and it’s not just what’s on paper. People pay back people they know, so making sure we really get to know our customers, and understand as much about them as we can.
Q: You said First Interstate is a bottom-up organization. How will that look in Oregon?
A: Instead of the top of the house telling everybody what to do, it’s more, ‘Here’s the strategy for the organization. You as leaders in the community go run your business.’ So the Oregon region, that’s my responsibility to run as my business. Then I’ll have a market president in each of the major markets. Then the team at the branches will report up through them. Those individuals have their own general ledger. They’ll run their business.
Q: How is that model effective in the modern world?
A: When you think about why people go into a bank today, it’s usually around a major decision. It’s buying a home. It’s business-related. The First Interstate delivery model means you have all those experts in the branches. Where (people) put their money, what they do with it, it’s more personal than almost anything in their life. You want to sit down and talk to someone you can trust. That still appeals to most generations. That’s why it works. If you look at the First Interstate market share, they’re upwards of 40, 50 percent market share in a lot of their communities.
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