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February 11th, 2004 Dan Cook | News Stories
 

Portland's New Money Man

Mike Michael is banking on corporate philanthropy.

     
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Ralph "Mike" Michael wants U.S. Bank to get its philanthropic props.
IMAGE: U.S. BANK
Sometimes it seems like you can't toss a $250 plate of rubber chicken in this town without splashing some béarnaise sauce on George Passadore. The balding, mustachioed bundle of energy has used his position as top local banker with Wells Fargo to out-schmooze, out-ribbon-cut and graciously accept more tribute from fawning nonprofits than everyone except PGE's Peggy Fowler (who apparently does nothing else).

But now, as Passadore retires from Wells Fargo, another money man is maneuvering to take his place as Most Compassionate Portland Banker--and he works for the competition. Ralph S. "Mike" Michael III became U.S. Bank's new Oregon president last summer. And unlike a lot of other local execs who profess their love of nonprofits while dispatching underlings to the banquets, Michael has already begun immersing himself in Portland charities. After all, he says, it's in his company's best interest.

For although U.S. Bank actually donates more money to arts, cultural and social service nonprofits (see chart), many in the community have the impression that Wells Fargo does more. Call it the Passadore effect.

Michael intends to fix that. His deep philanthropic track record, he says, played a role in the top brass's decision to recruit him for the Portland job. "They told me they were looking for somebody who was willing to get involved with the community," he says. "I told them I'd just love to be the one to do that."

Michael, a Pittsburgh native, replaced Joseph Otting, who was nearly invisible in the community during his two years at the helm of U.S. Bank's Oregon operation. Michael, on the other hand, has a reputation as a banker who throws himself into community activities and drags his employees and peers with him.

"Oh, people are going to be happy with him," says Karen Hoguet, the chief financial officer of Federated Department Stores in Cincinnati. "When Mike worked in Cincinnati, he was extremely involved in the nonprofit world."

As CEO of PNC Bank-Ohio, a unit of a large regional bank based in Pittsburgh, Michael agreed to direct the United Way campaign in Cincinnati. Hoguet recalls that Michael recruited her and other top executives in town and convinced scores of PNC employees to participate as well. The result: a record-breaking $46 million kitty at the end of the campaign.

"You don't have to drag Mike into volunteer work. He loves people, loves giving back to the community. He attended practically every charitable event we had," Hoguet says. "He's the most giving human being I've ever met."

Former Procter & Gamble CEO John Pepper adds, "Mike is extraordinarily community-minded. And he's not a bit tentative about fundraising. When he steps into the nonprofit arena, he doesn't leave [his business practices] at the door."

That's good news for U.S. Bank's PR team, which for years has felt its community involvement didn't get the recognition it deserved. Its financial and volunteer support of programs like Start Making a Reader Today (SMART), Habitat for Humanity and Young Audiences helped those programs reach new heights. But its most significant (and riskiest) philanthropic moment came in 1991, when community-relations vice president Linda Wright decided to give a $1 million grant to a storefront nonprofit called Self Enhancement Inc.

SEI was founded by a couple of guys with little management experience in a part of town where charitable contributions seemed to evaporate with few results. But the organization, which targeted African-American youth in Northeast Portland, today stands out as one of the region's most successful nonprofits. And U.S. Bank still provides strong support for SEI and its stay-in-school, high-self-esteem messages. This year, Wright again chaired its annual Art and Soul fundraiser, which brought in more than $1 million.

But while Wright is highly respected in the nonprofit world, she's never had the kind of backing that Passadore gave at Wells Fargo. And, as Michael notes, without the commitment from the very top, the message just doesn't get across as well.

At the same time, he says, any savvy executive ought to see the connection between community involvement and customers. Michael aims to increase U.S. Bank's market share in the region and thinks face time, particularly at charitable events, plays a role.

"We're in a people business. We've got to be involved in the community," he says. "But you've got to have a passion for it, and that's something you just can't fake."

Where will Michael focus his volunteerism? Right now, he's evaluating area nonprofits, trying to find the right fit. But United Way

is clearly on his radar. It would make sense, since U.S. Bank has been a leading United Way donor for years.

Passadore, for his part, views Michael's arrival as good news. "I've met Mike, and he'll be very good for the bank," says Passadore, who retains an office at Wells Fargo. "At the same time, I'll do everything I can to make sure Wells Fargo maintains its commitment to the community."


Big-hearted bankers: Comparing U.S. Bank and Wells Fargo

U.S. Bank

Wells Fargo

Total monetary donations to metro-area nonprofits, 2003
Source: U.S. Bank, Wells Fargo

$1,534,976

$1,314,065

Total monetary donations to metro-area art groups, 2003
Source: Northwest Business for Culture and the Arts

$247,711

$175,500

Total bank deposits in the Oregon Market as of June 30, 2002
Source: Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Market Share Report

$5.53 billion

$2.473 billion

 
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