Lou Pepper, who led Washington Mutual during its heyday, was much respected by the bank’s employees. He was also a partner in the law firm that bears his name.
Lou Pepper, the respected former CEO of Washington Mutual and named partner of Seattle law firm Foster Pepper, died Friday. He was 92.
Mr. Pepper was an executive who took the time to check in on how his employees were doing, regardless of their position within the company. He built the local bank during its most successful days, and never lost sight of its “Friend of the Family” motto.
And when the bank collapsed in 2008, Mr. Pepper, who had retired years earlier, created a fund to help the former employees who had lost everything in the crash.
Throughout his career, he always made time for his wife, Mollie, and four children.
“He worked really, really hard and was successful as a businessman, but that’s not the side I know of him,” his daughter Betsy Larson said.
He came home for dinner and to every key event she and her siblings participated in, Larson said, and was always available for a call to make them feel better.
“He was just full of love and caring for people,” she said.
Mr. Pepper moved to Seattle after a stint in the military and college, leaving his small Wisconsin hometown to make a career in law in the Northwest. In 1952, in a tight economy, Mr. Pepper persuaded a law firm to hire him as a temporary worker, according to “The Lost Bank: The Story of Washington Mutual” by Kirsten Grind.
Thirty years later, Mr. Pepper was working as a partner of what is now Foster Pepper, and serving on the Washington Mutual board of trustees.
Mr. Pepper stepped in to lead the bank, a longtime client of his, in the summer of 1981 when the banking industry was in dire straits, according to “The Lost Bank.”
He wasn’t the typical suit-wearing executive of a public company, former colleagues said. He was invested in the well-being of his employees and would walk the halls of the company every day, checking in to see how people were doing. He called it “management by walking around,” former executive Lindy Friedlander said.
“He had a presence that made you feel like you wanted to work hard,” added Liane Wilson, a longtime executive of Washington Mutual. “Not that he insinuated that, but because you had so much respect for him.”
Under Mr. Pepper’s leadership, Washington Mutual relaunched the “Friend of the Family” campaign that assured customers they would be treated as family. It was much more than a marketing campaign, said Lee Lannoye, a former chief credit officer and executive vice president of the bank.
“It was how you were supposed to meet people, customers and associates alike,” Lannoye said. “At that time, Washington Mutual was a family and it was his family.”
Mr. Pepper could always be counted on for some wisdom. Wilson can remember a time shortly after Mr. Pepper retired as CEO and was preparing for an international trip. He came into her office and talked about the upcoming vacation, saying, “You know, you have to schlep your bags while you can.”
That stuck with Wilson, and she is now a world traveler. She thinks of him every time she packs for a trip.
Wilson joined the company in 1985, a time when it was still rare to see female executives in business. Mr. Pepper had hired several.
“It didn’t matter your race, your sex, any religious preference. It didn’t matter whatever as long as you could do the job,” she said. “And in the mid-’80s that was really something for women to be able to reach higher positions.”
Fay Chapman remembers that well from her early days at Foster Pepper in the 1970s. Mr. Pepper would often give her a lot of responsibility on cases, something she didn’t get from everyone.
“I was good, but a lot of people had blinders on,” she said. “It was valuable that he didn’t have those blinders on.”
Mr. Pepper sometimes used his folksy demeanor to his advantage, Chapman said. He would use a “farm-kid routine” with lawyers from the East Coast.
“People underestimated him at their own peril,” she said.
His engaging presence didn’t stop at the interpersonal level. Mr. Pepper turned around the bank, taking it public and making it highly profitable.
In 1986, the bank issued mortgages worth $467 million, a record at the time for the company, according to “The Lost Bank.” Mr. Pepper helped establish company values literally traded on baseball cards among the supportive employees.
After Washington Mutual had failed in 2008, nearly two decades after Mr. Pepper left the top post, he called its demise “pathetic.”
“It was a great institution for 110 years or more, and to see it so mishandled that it would be the largest bank failure in the country is abominable, to put it mildly,” he told The Seattle Times in 2008.
Mr. Pepper lost weight and wasn’t at peak health during that time, Chapman remembers. He was too worried about the company’s people.
He sympathized with employees who had lost their life savings in the downfall, and went to work to help them. Along with four other former WaMu executives, Mr. Pepper launched a fund to help alumni of the company.
The Washington Mutual Alumni Funds raised well over $1 million, Wilson said, to pay for retraining grants, electrical bills and college scholarships for former employees’ children.
He cared about people, and it showed.
“How do you talk about a man who was just a gentleman in everything he did?” Lannoye asked.
Mr. Pepper was preceded in death by his wife, Mollie. Besides daughter Betsy Larson, he is survived by three other children, Lou Pepper, Margy Pepper and Willie Milo, and by his grandchildren, Mollie Pepper, Kady Shumway, Pepper Glessner, JC Glessner, Lucie Pepper and Jack Pepper.