Banking on Biology
Kathleen Sayce has a master's degree in botany.
What's she doing working in finance?
By Carol Milano
Courtesy of Shore Bank Pacific
If you were a small business owner looking for a loan, you'd expect financial
and perhaps accounting advice from your banker. But if you're a specialty
dried-fruit producer in Oregon seeking funding, you might end up with
a lesson about tadpoles.
The fruit producer had been cited by Oregon agencies for water-quality
violations. He was using sugar brine to infuse more flavor into fruits,
and then dumping tons of waste brine into a pond, where it decomposed.
Kathleen Sayce, the banker who worked with him, realized that without
a way to reuse the sugar, "He couldn't see how to ramp up production
without costly additional ponds."
With her encouragement, the owner installed a centrifuge, which removes
water and raises the density of the brine solution without altering flavor.
That led to greater brine reuse. The resulting 80% savings in monthly
sugar bills allowed exploration of alternative brine disposal. "Now,
a tanker hauls it to an ethanol plant – he's paid for waste brines!
We already knew we'd do the loan; I helped find more efficient ways to
handle brine output."
Realizing he no longer needed his expensive pond, the fruit producer asked,
"How do I know when it's safe for fish?" That was a question
Sayce was ready for: "Watch the water. When you see tadpoles, it's
Most banks examine a company's financial statements before approving a
loan. ShoreBank Pacific is just as likely to check its pH levels. America's
first commercial bank committed to improving customers' environmental
performance is probably the only one employing a full-time bank scientist.
Daughter of a marine biologist, Sayce never expected to work in finance.
After earning a BS in biology and an MS in botany, she had gone on to
have typical jobs given her training: working in marine biology and for
a Washington state agency monitoring health hazards of biotoxins and algal
blooms. By 1998, she was employed as science program director of Willapa
Alliance, an Oregon nonprofit that protects local marine life.
FROM BIO TO BUCKS
But then ShoreBank approached her. Founded in 1997 by a Northwestern conservation
group, the bank is based in Ilwaco, Wash., a waterfront town near the
Oregon border. Initially, bankers with no scientific experience headed
the institution, but they soon realized they needed someone like Sayce.
She joined the bank in 1998.
"Kathleen's unique because she was raised in a rural community and
is a real business[person] at heart, though she'd never admit it,"
says Shore Bank president and CEO David Williams, a former physicist.
"Blending the whole scientific process into a business setting is
special. Her skills help make our bank distinctive, by helping customers
identify ways to perform better – both economically and environmentally."
Sayce's job affords autonomy, variety, and occasional reminders that it's
a bank, not a laboratory. In one meeting several years ago, "I tried
to tell a lender why CO2 emitted from a local coal-burning plant could
be offset by preserving forestland elsewhere," Sayce says. "He
was fixated on thinking the CO2 would just stay in one place, so how could
conservation in the tropics be affected? I had to explain the oxygen/CO2
relationship between everything on Earth."
Concern about future health risks affects all ShoreBank business decisions.
Sayce reviews every loan request for brownfield reuse or rehabilitation.
"If they're polluted, where will contaminants go? Can we help reduce
them below dangerous public-health levels?"
ShoreBank itself is on a designated brownfield, the site of a former gas
station. To decrease ground-water contaminant levels, Sayce was adamant
about spending money on porous pavers (more expensive than typical asphalt)
in the parking lot, rather than on amenities inside the bank. The pavers
allow more water and oxygen into the ground, so that bacteria can break
down the ground-water contaminants. So far, it's worked, according to
samples taken at monitoring wells at the site.
Sayce spends half her time in the field, does database maintenance in
her typical bank office, and performs any lab work, such as testing for
harmful species in water, at home. After preliminary screening, "I
go and evaluate where a business is, and could go, environmentally"
For example, several banks had rejected a well-established craft paper
processing company that sought financing to expand its plant in a small
town. Having always used resins containing a methanol solvent, the company
planned to invest in a switch to a water-based resin, which would reduce
the need for indoor air-exchange equipment to prevent workers from inhaling
solvents. Unable to see why resin type made any difference, bankers were
reluctant to fund the new mill.
When the company finally approached ShoreBank, Sayce immediately recognized
the connection between its resin and its concerns with plant operational
safety issues, air-quality regulations, and workers' health. Presenting
the proposed loan to ShoreBank's lenders required her to discuss volatile
organic compounds (VOCs). "The bankers couldn't understand how there
could be direct health risks," she remembers. "One asked, 'How
could painting my house with the wrong paint possibly affect my health?'
My role was persuading our lenders that these were good changes, with
financial as well as environmental benefits: Reducing the methanol would
lower both operational and capital expenses."
Her minicourse in VOCs brought loan approval. The larger plant created
several dozen jobs for a rural timber town. The company reduced its methanol
content by about 75%. Its new plywood overlay, made for the same cost
as its traditional, less durable materials, produces something that can
be reused 15 to 20 times, instead of five. "The client now feels
that their bank really communicates with them, so they're happy. They're
innovators in timber and industry," Sayce says proudly.
of these articles appear on the publication's website, which
are often password-protected or members-only. For your convenience,
I've gathered them on my own website.