It’s been almost four decades since Russell Lee moved from Minnesota to Western Washington and found, in an entry level bank teller job, the industry that would become his career. Thirty-six years later, the new CEO of INB says he’s still moved by the same things. “I’m a person for whom lifestyle is very important” he says. It’s why he came west shortly after receiving a music degree. “I said, ‘I want to live somewhere nice, somewhere close to mountains’” Lee remembers, “‘I thought I can always find a job.’”
In banking though, Lee says he found more than a job. We sat down with him recently to talk about how banking has changed, how the Inland Northwest is different than Western Washington, and what he sees as the future of this company and our region.
You weren’t particularly interested in banking before that teller job. What made it a career?
I’m an analytical person. I like numbers, but I like working with people as well. Banking is a great business where you can move back and forth between the two, and community banking is even better because the relationships you form are local. You get to know the people you bank and loan money to. You see their businesses and their families grow. You impact people’s lives and they impact yours. That was one of the hard things about coming over here from Bellingham our home for almost 40 years. In Bellingham, I would run into people constantly with whom I had done business with and had come to know.
So now that you’re here, what have you noticed?
We feel very comfortable here, I think for me it is because of where I grew up. The Inland Northwest feels very Midwest to me, but with the benefit of geography that the Midwest doesn’t have. In addition to the lakes of my home in Minnesota we also have spectacular rivers and mountains and most importantly real ski areas. I’m sure you know there’s a Westsider’s mentality about Spokane and North Idaho that holds out the Westside as somehow superior, but when my wife and I came to check out the area we found we really liked it. We are finding new charms about the Inland Northwest every day. There are a lot of great funky restaurants like the Flying Goat that we really enjoy. But, most importantly we find that people are excited about the future here and with very good reason.
Lots of young people starting to plant roots here.
Absolutely! There’s an idea that if you want to conquer the world you have to do it from a big city, but I really like that people are saying, “I want to make my mark here. That’s just as cool as doing it in Seattle or New York.” I like that it’s still an affordable community. You can have kids and when they grow up they can afford to live here. Our children couldn’t afford to live in Bellingham. Then my son moved to Portland which is so much worse, but that’s a whole other story!
"Every decision we make isn’t just about dollars and cents, it’s about asking, “how do we make this community better, brighter and more prosperous?”
So how does a community bank fit into a scene like the Inland Northwest?
Well one of the things that made our decision to move easier is the strength of INB. You’d be hard-pressed to find a bank our size on a stronger or more stable footing from both the financial aspect as well as the aspect of community respect. I’m not just saying this from pride, but also from the perspective of almost 4 decades in this business. This is the result of doing things right from the very beginning, taking the community banking mindset seriously. The Inland Northwest is our home. You are our neighbors. We separate ourselves from national banks by doing all of our work right here. And so, every decision we make isn’t just about dollars and cents, it’s about asking, “how do we make this community better, brighter and more prosperous?”
Technology is so important in banking. How do you keep that sense of community when people are doing more of their banking on their phones?
We have fewer opportunities to interact person to person, which makes every interaction all that more important. Banks of all sizes have to have first class products — innovative loan structures, really solid applications — and we have those, but I think where INB will continue to set itself apart is the human aspect of our culture. As bankers, we are stewards of our customers’ financial lives, but we’re also partners in helping them build for their future. Big financial decisions affect our entire lives, and for that we need first class advice and expertise. Even the most advanced app or piece of software isn't going to get you there. That’s the sort of thing that can only be delivered by the best people given the best training.