Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Reporter's Notebook

Paul Leonard can be reached at

Good banking by the bottle

In this year of economic tempest, with numbers reflecting massive job losses, shuttered businesses and depleted 401Ks, one figure rises above the rest: 133.

That’s the number of banks to fail this year as of Monday, according to numbers provided by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., with the latest casualty of the continuing financial meltdown a relatively-small Kansas savings-and-loan.

It’s the highest number in the history of the FDIC, the ubiquitous mother-of-all acronyms, once a complete afterthought, a peeling decal sticker on a teller’s booth – now the savior of capitalism as we know it, the garbage-man cleaning up the detritus of banks large and small.

There’s no doubt the economy is in desperate need for some good news. Lucky for us, a hint of what our President might call an “audacious” glimmer of hope came in the form of Monday’s opening of a Columbia Bank branch in downtown Vancouver, occurring on the same day as the 133rd U.S. bank failure of 2009.

Yes, in the midst of the bloated corpses of financial giants and the bony remains of small savings-and-loans, there are banks in this country that are expanding into new markets, fattening their deposits and writing new loans.

So what’s Columbia Bank’s secret? To get an answer, as is custom in my profession, I picked up the phone and made a call.

As opposed to calling say, Citi’s chief Vikram Pandit or departing Bank of America CEO Kenneth Lewis, both armed with taxpayer-funded phalanxes of public relations professionals, contacting Columbia Bank senior vice president Mark Brandon was relatively painless.

Brandon seemed in good spirits, excited about this week’s branch opening in the Angelo Building downtown, as well as the bank’s planned opening on the 27th Floor of Portland’s Fox Tower in March.

And the optimism on his part seems justified: the Tacoma-based bank’s expansion into Clark County has all the hallmarks of being a well-planned venture, with Brandon hiring longtime local bankers like Gordon Rodewald and Joan Cooper and a new branch located on what is increasingly known among local realtors and developers as Vancouver’s “bank row.”

But the planning for success in today’s economy began well before Clark County was even on Columbia Bank’s map. At the height of the housing boom, the financial institution’s exposure to residential real estate investments was 12 percent of its total assets, a figure that has since declined to 6 percent, according to Brandon.

So local people, a good location and a conservative take on risky investments… what exactly has Brandon been drinking? And how can we bottle some to pass out at board meetings, Federal Reserve conclaves and cabinet sessions?

I, for one, wouldn’t know. I’m still waiting for Vikram and Ken to return my calls.