Into the WaMu breach, Phyllis Campbell is taking up the challenges at Chase.

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photographed by Erika Schultz

PHYLLIS CAMPBELL was minding her own business last fall, content running the Seattle Foundation, one of the city’s largest philanthropic organizations, where she had doubled the giving budget in just a few years, when she got a phone call from a representative of JPMorgan Chase in New York.

JPMorgan Chase was one of the nation’s largest mortgage lenders, having swallowed up Seattle’s Washington Mutual after it collapsed in the biggest bank failure in American history. About 3,400 employees at the downtown headquarters were about to lose their jobs as WaMu became Chase, and billions in deposits had disappeared as panicked account holders took their money and ran.

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Campbell was aware of all this, as well as the public’s fury at Wall Street and the nation’s financial institutions. But as the successful former president and CEO of U.S. Bank’s Northwest operations until 2001, Campbell had cultivated a reputation for honesty in banking that no one in her home base of Seattle questioned.

Apparently, word of her reputation floated all the way to the executive suites at JPMorgan Chase, because on that day last fall, the firm was calling with an exciting job opportunity.

They wanted her as the Northwest CEO of what was now Chase.

Campbell promptly said no thanks.

At the Seattle Foundation, she was indulging her passion for philanthropy on a grand scale.

She offered to give the names of three others who might be up for the position, then hung up.

Boy, that’s going to be a big job,” she recalls thinking.

That’s quite an understatement, even for a woman known for her plain-spoken, down-to-business personality. (“My idea of a trashy magazine is reading The Economist,” she jokes.)

Campbell eventually reconsidered and said yes, much to the confusion of a few friends and associates who e-mailed her asking, “What are you thinking?”

Now Campbell, 58, is the public face of Chase in the Northwest. And the “big job” is shaping up to be just that.

She not only has to rebuild one of Seattle’s oldest and most beloved financial institutions (under a new name and management, no less) but in some way help repair the image of a financial sector that in her own words was “having a party — a party that they didn’t want to stop.”

“WHAT BETTER time to get back into banking?” says Campbell, who is small in stature but manages to command attention with her firm handshakes, disarming directness and flawlessly assembled business suits. The whole presentation purrs cool confidence, a suffer-no-fools seriousness.

She sits in a boardroom high up in the former Washington Mutual tower in downtown Seattle, Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains stretched out in the panorama behind her, an apt visual for the sweeping challenge that lies ahead.

“The other side of challenge is opportunity,” she then says with a lightness that makes her seem surprisingly approachable.

Generally, when people equate challenge with opportunity, you can brush it off as a platitude. But Campbell insists she’s driven by tough tasks. She chuckles at the irony of starting a job with such a ludicrously monumental set of challenges on, of all days, April Fool’s Day.

That first day at work was a blur as Campbell, hopped up on three cups of coffee, tried to navigate what were then Chase’s offices on the 31st and 32nd floors of its Second Avenue headquarters.

Three different executives from Chase in New York called to check in on her, and a week later, Chairman and CEO Jamie Dimon himself e-mailed to say he was available to help.

“I remember thinking to myself in the first week, ‘I’m in the right place,’ ” Campbell says.

Before being hired last winter, Campbell met Dimon face-to-face when he visited Seattle. He was the one who asked her to reconsider the offer to join Chase, and he invited her to fly to New York for a closer look at its operations.

When Campbell arrived at headquarters after Christmas, she sized up the surroundings like an art buff at the Guggenheim.

“I was very impressed that the headquarters was not opulent,” she says. The décor was “very plain . . . quite ordinary. I really looked at that as a good sign.”

Dimon says Campbell basically turned the background and interview process around and grilled him and others at the company about their business practices and core principles.

They were impressed.

“She covered the waterfront,” Dimon says. She wanted to know how Chase would handle local giving, build certain segments of its business here; how often Dimon would visit, on and on.

“Her thoroughness, by the way, is probably what made us love her,” Dimon says. “We had to win her over.”

Dimon says the Chase people knew they needed someone who could “make up for the city and state what they’d lost.”

Everyone they spoke to recommended Campbell.

Campbell saw in Dimon an executive who followed through on his promises and held people accountable.

Going forward, she says one thing that’s important is for financial institutions to tie compensation more closely to risk management and long-term results, and challenge assumptions. “Historically, when companies have gotten away from that, that’s when they’ve gotten into trouble.”

At Chase, she says, “they were asking those types of questions.”

It is true that her parent company, which as paid back government bailout money, walked away from the financial crisis relatively unscathed. It says something about the strength of its balance sheet that Chase was in a position to sweep up the ruins of both Bear Stearns and WaMu, fashioning something resembling the old Seattle savings-and-loan with not a single branch closure in Washington state.

But quarterly reports and company principles are inside baseball to the average person shopping for a bank or investment firm they can depend on. And a seething suspicion of banks persists.

Campbell got her first taste of it as a Chase executive in mid-April on a flight to New York to attend a meeting. She started chatting with a passenger, exchanging the usual seatmate pleasantries when the man asked what she did for a living. Her answer practically sucked the air out of the cabin.

“Immediately, his friendliness turned into an almost palpable anger,” Campbell says. “He said, ‘I’m very disappointed. Up to this point, I thought you were a nice person.’ “

The man was mad at the banks, mad at the government over the bailouts — mad, mad, mad.

Campbell just sat there and took it, then pondered his visceral response.

“In a sense, then it turned to, ‘What can I do about that,’ because there is this depth of anger,” she says. “I’m really in a good position to help restore some of that trust and confidence.”

CHASE’S DECISION to recruit Campbell was an implicit acknowledgement of the struggle it faces making an out-of-state bank approachable in a town known for identifying with its corporate home teams, be it Boeing or Starbucks.

WaMu had endeared itself to the public with generous gifts to artistic and charitable institutions, along with a folksy marketing strategy that emphasized personal service.

Banks used to court customers by acting like trusted friends. Now they boast about how many ATMs they operate.

The personal connection, and by extension the connection to a place, is ever more tenuous. And that presents a special problem in the Puget Sound region, says Seattle banking consultant and retired lending specialist Steve Benine, whose own grandfather worked at Washington Mutual for 40 years. He sees Campbell’s appointment as a savvy, and necessary, move.

“She has the local connections, which is important here in the Pacific Northwest, where we’re kind of colloquial,” he says. “If we have to make a long-distance call, your bank’s too far away.”

When Dimon visited Seattle again in July, he spent a day and a half shuttling to meetings, breakfasts and luncheons Campbell had lined up.

At a news conference, though, officials were peppered with questions about Chase’s decision to quit sponsoring the Fourth of July fireworks over Lake Union. It took the big-city bankers a little by surprise.

The fact is, Chase is a global operation, and its presence here will reflect that. Already, the Northwest division is expanding its services in areas like foreign exchange, wealth management and lending to businesses and nonprofits.

But Chase is making an attempt at conjuring local color — if you count the blue-on-white billboards popping up all over town, basically urging locals to give Chase a chance. “Washington’s newest 200-year-old bank,” says one series featuring silhouettes of Mount Rainier, the Space Needle and Pike Place Market.

Still, Chase will take some getting used to. Campbell said as much to a group of students she mentors at the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business this summer.

“Now we have a more formal environment,” she said, comparing Chase to WaMu. “If you go into a branch now, managers are wearing suits and Chase name tags and Chase pins. People don’t know Chase here, so we have to say who we are, what we do and what we’re about. We have to be patient.”

More than that, Campbell often says, she and Chase will have to prove there is substance behind the slogans.

CAMPBELL’S GRANDFATHER, Tomotsu Sebastian Takizaki, was a huge influence and taught her a valuable lesson:

“Life is not about you,” Campbell paraphrases. “It’s about being an instrument for greater things.”

Campbell, who grew up in Spokane helping in her Japanese-American family’s dry-cleaning business, always wanted greater things for herself, too. But she never fails to talk about people who’ve helped along the way.

A favorite anecdote involves a period in high school when she was trying to raise money to attend Washington State University. One day, a check for $2,500 arrived in the mail from a WSU scholarship fund aimed at low-income students. “The thing that left the impression was this person who gave back, who paid it forward,” Campbell says.

After college, she landed a job at Old National Bank in Spokane as a management trainee, during which she spent three months working as a teller, the front lines of banking. There, bank Chairman and CEO David Clack reinforced her grandfather’s message with his own: “A bank really needs to give back to the community. If a community does well, you do well.”

Old National eventually merged with U.S. Bank, where Campbell rose to become its Northwest head and, ultimately, a civic leader, carrying those lessons to numerous boards and foundations, from Nordstrom to the United Way. “I know the power of a check, the power of somebody’s message, somebody paying attention,” she says now.

At U.S. Bank, Campbell persuaded the higher-ups to get involved with affordable-housing developer Homesight, which was building in Seattle’s Central District and Interstate 90 lid area at a time when banks wouldn’t even set up a branch there.

With this feat in mind, Campbell moves forward confident she has reached a “synchronicity of values” with her new employer. But she adds: “You won’t see our name on a lot of flashy events . . . We really have a philosophy of doing quiet but effective work in communities that have the most need,” such as distressed neighborhoods in South Seattle.

This summer she met with officials at Homesight to re-establish the relationship she forged years ago. She’s also set up an advisory board to help Chase identify efforts in which the bank can be a “thoughtful participant,” grantmaker or source of volunteers, such as programs in public health and education.

But for local organizations that rely heavily on corporate giving, the jury is still out on Chase, says Washington State Hospital Association Deborah Swets, who was director of the nonprofit civic organization CityClub when Campbell was president of the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce.

Swets has been an admirer of Campbell’s for years and believes Chase made a “brilliant” choice in hiring her, but knows the tough road ahead.

“We have seen evidence that every time a major company is bought by an out-of-state entity or when a company moves its headquarters out of state, for that matter, that our influence wanes, to be perfectly blunt,” Swets says.

Campbell says Chase did pledge $2.56 million for charitable giving for 2009, the same amount WaMu allocated last year.

And as former Seattle mayor and new Seattle Foundation chief Norman Rice points out, Campbell herself brings something crucial to Chase’s community outreach. Her credibility and deep local ties are a form of social currency.

Campbell says she visits bank branches as much as she can, gauging satisfaction among managers and staff, chatting with customers.

“It takes me back to my role at the dry cleaners,” she says. “Roll up your sleeves, be willing to listen as much as you talk.”

When she was considering the job at Chase, she consulted with former Commerce Secretary Bill Daley, who’d just been tapped to head the bank’s Chicago-based division.

” ‘Is Jamie the real deal?’ ” she asked.

“There was a silence on the phone,” Campbell recalls. “Then he said, ‘Jamie is one of the most decent human beings I’ve ever met.’ “

Says Campbell: “That was good enough for me.”

ONE MORNING at Chase headquarters here, Campbell had to dash off to a meeting with the mayor. But before she left, she dug out her day planner to show how she keeps her busy schedule in order.

It’s an unimpressive old thing, about the size of her hand, with frayed leather cover and pages softened by weeks of thumbing.

She loves to keep lists. A jolt of prideful accomplishment runs up her arm as she crosses off tasks completed, meetings attended, goals met, and as she opens the day planner, the pages indeed are graffitied with big scribbles covering to-do items she’s listed.

If she were feeling doubly ambitious, she might jot down “Save Banking” in her planner.

Campbell seems game for the challenge and isn’t looking back.

Tyrone Beason is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer. Ericka Schultz is a Seattle Times staff photographer.