You could say E. Michael Downer was born to be a banker. His great-grandfather, E. M. Downer, founded Mechanics Bank in 1905. The bank is now in its fourth generation of family leadership and today Downer is its vice chairman.
“It’s in my blood,” Downer said. “I’m really passionate about community banking. It’s a wonderful role to play in the community, and I’m really fortunate to have the opportunity,” he said.
The bank’s corporate headquarters are in Richmond. Downer lives in Napa.
What’s a common question or misconception you get about your bank?
That we’re a private bank. We’re not — we are a community bank. We are focused on small businesses but we also help consumers.
What’s the secret to running a long-time family business?
Making sure you have great people that do the right thing for the customer and the bank and you have shareholders that understand the long-term vision of doing the right thing.
You have two daughters. Do you hope they will work for the bank one day?
I hope they follow their own passion and do what they think will provide them the most rewarding career. If banking, that would be great.
How did your bank survive the recession?
We were more conservative than many of our peers. We stuck to doing what we knew how to do best. We didn’t take a lot of risks with creative financial products that got some banks in trouble.
Which three people would you most like to have dinner with?
E. M. Downer, E. M. Downer Jr. and E. M. Downer III - My great grandfather, grandfather and father, respectively. Combined they have led Mechanics Bank since its founding in 1905. I’m fortunate that my father is alive and well, with over 50 years with the bank. It would be wonderful to have all of them at dinner to hear about the challenges and opportunities they faced during their time.
What was your first job?
My first banking job was with Napa Valley Bank in 1989 as a teller in a management training program. Napa Valley Bank was a wonderful community bank. I later worked in operations and credit, eventually landing as a Commercial Loan Officer.
What is the biggest challenge your business has faced?
The great recession impacted everyone and it has been a difficult time. We were able to manage our risks well. We also have long-standing relationships with many of our clients, in some cases going back generations, and we worked with them to get through some tough times. We maintained our profitability and never had to take a government bailout, like TARP.
Who do you most admire in the business world?
My great grandfather, E. M. Downer. In 1889, as a young man, he came from Grass Valley to Pinole with Southern Pacific Railroad to establish a rail station and town for workers of the railroad. By the turn of the century he was the Telegraph Operator, Transfer Agent, Post Master and City Clerk of Pinole. Once a month he would take the workers’ paychecks on the day-long journey by horse and buggy to Martinez to cash them into gold. It became dangerous and he started carrying a shotgun. In 1905 he decided to start a bank in a safe in the floor of his office in the train station. 108 years later we’re still going strong.
What is one thing you hope to accomplish in your lifetime that you haven’t yet?
See my daughters graduate from college.
If you could change one thing about your business, what would it be?
The perception about most banks. The largest 25 banks in our country have 85 percent market share and are too big to fail because the impact would negatively affect the entire economy. They have less capital and can take risks that smaller banks cannot because the government will not let them fail. It’s unfair, but who said life was fair? The other nearly 7,000 banks in the U.S. are mostly community banks like us who work to provide loans to their local communities to help businesses and create jobs. Holding all banks, especially the largest few, to the same level of accountability in terms of managing risks, capital requirements to cover those risks and regulatory oversight to ensure compliance would be good for everyone.
Bonus questions for the web:
What’s something people might be surprised to know about you?
I’m a private pilot.
What was your childhood ambition?
Be my own person whether I went into the family business or not.
If you could be anywhere right now, where would you be?
San Blas Islands off the coast of Panama. No hotels or resorts, just peaceful tropical islands.
What job would you like to try/not try?
Try: Fighter pilot
Not try: Forensic pathologist
What’s the worst job you ever had?
None. I’ve always learned something from every job, but a few motivated me to work harder and get ahead.
How did you get into this business?
Believe it or not, I got into banking while at the kitchen table with my father and sometimes my grandfather. As a child I became fascinated with the idea that gathering local deposits and safeguarding people’s money could also help out the local business community in the form of loans. It was great to hear the stories and see the positive impact the bank had within the community.
What’s on your to-do list?
Build a tree house for my daughter.