By the time Roy Whitehead arrived at Washington Federal in the late 1990s as the prospective successor to the savings bank’s CEO, he knew a thing or two about steering a financial institution through tough times. He had begun his career during the recession of the mid-’70s and later experienced the severe Texas oil slump of the 1980s that drove nine of the 10 top banks in that state to failure. When Whitehead took the helm at Washington Federal in 2000, even the bursting of the tech bubble was “not a bump in the road for this company” by his reckoning. Far more impactful, he says, was the challenge of all-time-low interest rates that affected the bank’s balance sheet, as well as consolidation of the housing-finance industry. Reflecting on the institution’s traditional emphasis on residential housing, Whitehead says, “That strategy served us well for over 20 years, but it wasn’t the one going forward.” Whitehead and his team crafted a multiyear plan to diversify Washington Federal’s business model, shifting to more commercial and real estate investing. “We effectively converted from peacetime to wartime,” Whitehead says. Today, 70 percent of the bank’s loan originations are commercial. That foresight helped Washington Federal navigate the rough shoals of the 2008 financial crisis. The bank remained well capitalized, maintaining full employment as other financial institutions folded or merged. It also was better able to work with the troubled accounts it did hold, modifying loans to give about 3,000 families the breathing space they needed to stay in their homes. Whitehead attributes its ability to do so to being a portfolio lender, meaning the bank holds all the loans it makes, affording more flexibility. A year later, Whitehead stepped up acquisitions and Washington Federal became the first bank to launch an offensive round of raising capital during the recession. A secondary offering of equity brought $1.5 billion in commitments, driving six acquisitions in the past five years. In 2013, after operating for 96 years under charter as a federal thrift, Washington Federal converted to a bank. Whitehead serves as chairman of the Washington Bankers Association, committed to the single profession of his life. After Washington Federal’s nearly 100 years of helping local communities to thrive, he says, “We’re dug in, and investing for the long haul.”
Is there a Tom Kundig Life Statement?
I put a quote in my first book: “Only common things happen when common sense prevails.” I don’t know who came up with it, but it always makes me smile and it’s kind of true. If you’re looking for adventure, or something new or something worth living for, you’re looking for the edge, whatever that might be.
How do you balance your creative mind with your business mind?
I think a creative mind is a business mind because business is creative. You’re dealing with a set of issues and you’re trying to find a pathway, trying to resolve the issues, into a success.
What piece of advice would you give to your younger self, when you were just starting out?
Be more secure about your abilities and less insecure about your existence so that you can do things with a well-placed confidence.
What song would you like played at your funeral?
(Laughs) I don’t know! I won’t be hearing it so I don’t really care.
You’re stuck on a desert island and can have one book, one record, one food and one person.
My wife, Jeannie. Beethoven’s Ninth. A hamburger. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
Who or what is your worst enemy?
Noncritical thinking. People who don’t think about what they’re saying.
Beatles or Rolling Stones?
Beatles. I share a birthday with John Lennon and sympathy with his larger musical and political agendas.
What four guests would make for the perfect dinner party?
Kurt Vonnegut, Richard Feynman, Indira Gandhi, Muhammad Ali.
Do you have a spiritual practice and if yes, how does that practice manifest?
I was raised a Unitarian, so it is a very personal spiritual practice and certainly influenced by both Buddhist teachings and Jesuit friends.
› For more on artists, entertainers and entrepreneurs, tune in Art Aone with Nancy Guppy on the Seattle Channel (seattlechannel.org/artzone).