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Community laments loss of its hometown bank

Sign of the times: The sign in front of American Marine Bank
Sign of the times: The sign in front of American Marine Bank's headquarters Friday night reflected the change in ownership.
— image credit: Bob Wagoner/Courtesy Photo

Bainbridge Island lost perhaps its most enduring symbol of success last Friday with the unceremonious unfurling of a banner over the American Marine Bank sign at its headquarters building on Winslow Way.

As often happens when there’s a forced takeover of a bank, some 65 employees of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) arrived at closing time on Friday. The bank reopened Saturday morning at AMB’s island headquarters and 11 branches in the Puget Sound area as Columbia State Bank, a subsidiary of a publicly owned holding company based in Tacoma.

The bank’s closure was not unexpected and the financial reputation of the new owners has been venerated by many in the banking industry, but it will take some time before the community AMB has served for 61 years comes to terms with the demise.

“This is going to be a huge loss for our community,” said Lois Boubong, president of the Bainbridge Island Chamber of Commerce’s board of directors.

“The bank has been the heart and soul of downtown Winslow for many, many, many years. I just hope the new managers understand how important the bank is to the community.

“And not just as a bank,” she said. “We’ve always been able to count on them to help the community in so many ways. It’s a sad, sad day.”

Joanne Coy, a representative of Columbia, said Thursday that all of the AMB employees were still working under the new ownership and that only one had informed management that she was leaving, “as far as I know.” Employees for both the former bank and Columbia employees have been instructed to send inquiries to Coy and make no statements regarding the changeover.

But Eddie Rollins, who served the bank as a public relations employee for more than 30 years, had no such problem.

“I’m very disappointed like a lot of people,” he said. “It was a very good bank when (co-founder) Lou Goller ran it. It’s always been great for the community. I knew everyone in the community when I was there, and when there was a problem they’d come to me and we’d solve it right away. People liked that.”

On the surface, very little has changed since the bank reopened, in part, because the FDIC has plenty of practice these days serving its receivership role in transition to the new owner. Since Jan. 26, 2008, the FDIC has been involved in the closure of 135 U.S. banks, including a half-dozen in Washington and Oregon.

Columbia State also has recent takeover experience, becoming the new owners of Columbia River Bank in The Dalles, Ore., this past Jan. 22.

“This one has gone pretty smooth so far,” said Edith Gray, a FDIC “ombudsman” who specializes in overseeing the transfer of assets and liabilities from a failed bank to an acquirer. “Our job in the settlement process is simply to balance everything out so that (Columbia) assumes ownership with a clean slate.”

It appeared to be business as usual Monday at the bank’s headquarters building, other than the fact there were a few security officers present and twice as many people scurrying around than usual. But the same familiar tellers and bank employees were still hard at work, allowing customers to feel comfortable despite the obvious changes afoot.

“It was the same person I always do business with so it didn’t feel weird,” said a woman who asked to remain anonymous. “But I could tell she (the teller) was feeling stressed out.”

Since Saturday, tellers and other bank employees have been informing customers that it’s business as usual for all services, including checking, deposits, withdrawals, loan payments and online access.

Brad Williamson, director of the state Department of Financial Institution’s Division of Banks (a regulator) said the standard FDIC agreement is that the new owner will have the branches remain open for at least a year.

“The average bank employee, including branch managers and accounting and loan officers, will not be impacted at all,” Williamson said. “Senior management likely won’t be employed by the new owner.”

He said that AMB’s shareholders also will be out in the cold. “Usually they’re represented by a holding company, which often will declare bankruptcy so a court can sort through the financial details,” Williamson said. “The new bank has no relationship with the shareholders.”

According to Williamson, AMB was not unlike many of the banks that have failed during the last year in that the real estate downturn revealed that it had “too many problematic assets” that were performing at an unacceptable level. “Specifically, the bank made many construction loans to borrowers who couldn’t pay it back because the market turned during the last two years,” Williamson said.

He said that the bank’s top managers and the board of directors worked hard to raise capital and bring about a correction during the last year, “but, you know, the problems that existed just couldn’t be overcome.”

Williamson and others have said that American Marine Bank was attractive to new owners for several reasons, “but primarily because it represents a nice deposit franchise and a good footprint in a small, but important market. Of all the banks that have been sold so far, it was the most attractive franchise out there.”

The FDIC’s Gray said she became aware of AMB’s problems last August “when it popped onto our list of potential failures.” She said there were 391 bidders who declared their interest and the FDIC narrowed it down to a final six with Columbia State eventually coming out on top.

The 17-year-old bank, which, through its public holding company, Columbia Banking System, had 73 bank branches in Oregon and Washington prior to the AMB purchase, has been on a merger binge during the last three years and was poised for more action after raising $120 million in August with a public offering of 8.5 million shares of the company’s common stock. The company’s stock, traded on the Nasdaq exchange, was at $18.62 a share Monday. www.columbiabank.com

“We are extremely pleased with the results of our public offering, which validates the strength of our franchise,” President and CEO Melanie Dressel said at the time of the August offering. “This additional capital, when added to our already strong capital levels, gives us the flexibility to respond quickly and effectively to business opportunities as they arise.”

Williamson said Columbia has adjusted well to the current real estate crisis and has been especially proficient at raising capital at a time when most smaller banks are retrenching. He also considers the bank to be a good community partner.

“I live in Tacoma and Columbia is a strong, active member of the community, just as American Marine Bank has been on Bainbridge,” he said. “Columbia has done a lot of good work in the community and its acquisition is a very good outcome for Bainbridge because it is a good corporate citizen.”

That’s hopeful, but the Chamber of Commerce’s Boubong and other customers who had long become captivated by AMB’s small-town manner, aren’t too sure it can be replaced.

“I worry about many of our locals losing their jobs there and the bank not being able to continue providing that hometown feeling that made it so special over all these years,” Boubong said. “With the economy in a period of change and with no one knowing how we will come out of it, having our bank fail doesn’t help our uncertainties. We can just hope for the best.”

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