By Kerry O’LearyLaurie Stewart’s bank is in the other Washington—Washington state, that is. But her connection to both legislative centers—in the state capital of Olympia, as well as in our nation’s capital—has positioned her as a leader in advocating for the banking industry. Members of Congress from her home state know the $540 million Sound Community Bank, where she is currently president and CEO, and Stewart knows the potential that name recognition can have on the floor in Washington, D.C.
With Sound since 1989, when she joined as president, she’s had a personal interest in government affairs since college. “I remember being excited about primaries, and going to events and learning about candidates and just being engaged in the process,” recalls Stewart, a member and former chairman of ABA’s Government Relations Council who was named by American Banker as one of the “25 Women to Watch” for her leadership in advocacy. She attributes some of her success in forging relationships with lawmakers to the lawmakers themselves. “He’s had a long relationship with bankers,” she says of Rep. Denny Heck (D), “and he really understands them, so when he travels to Washington, D.C., it’s just natural for him to engage with bankers.”
Stewart regularly invites up-and-coming employees to legislative lunches in Olympia to talk to lawmakers. And Sound’s executive development program also takes emerging leaders on annual visits to D.C. “Part of the legacy I would like to leave is that other people get as excited about advocacy as I do. And I try to extend that beyond the C-suite,” Stewart says.
The legacy she speaks of stretches past handshakes. “We’ve also got to put dollars behind our presence,” she says, “and that’s a big part of advocacy.” Her bank makes a corporate contribution to the 501(c)(4) Fund for Economic Growth and solicits support for BankPac at the management and board level. “It’s no different than the other things that we build into our operating budget,” she says—likening BankPac and Fund contributions to investments in infrastructure, software or training at the bank. Each year, her board includes an agenda item on BankPac and the Fund and suggest what Stewart calls a “fair-share contribution.” She also anticipates instituting an employee-wide drive in the future and sees the potential to reach a wider pool of contributors as a necessary next step.
Making it personal
Stewart also advises doing homework before meeting a lawmaker. During one of her first conversations with Sen. Patty Murray (D), Stewart’s strategy was to “build a bridge by leading off with something she’s passionate about, which for Patty is veterans’ affairs.”
The goal, says Stewart, is to tie any subject back to banking. “Everything has financial ramifications. So if you can engage [your lawmaker]to begin with, when they talk to their colleagues or when somebody asks their opinion, they are then more educated on more issues. It will ultimately pay off.”
Stewart’s tireless efforts led Rep. Derek Kilmer (D), whom she refers to as “a rising star,” to visit Sound’s Tacoma branch—one of only a few branches that has an in-house lending and retail unit—last fall. Employees raised topics like fair lending and credit, and Kilmer left with anecdotes and information to help him better understand what regulations mean to the people he represents in D.C.
“I can’t tell you how great that was,” says Stewart. “Not just because we got to talk to Derek, but because the dialogue came from our employees and their stories about what they do every day.”
This grassroots storytelling is what Stewart says ignites the whole advocacy process. “And that’s the whole goal of advocacy. When lawmakers think of bankers they think of a real person and not just an institution.”