Thomas Heath
Thomas Heath
Columnist

Value Added: Mogul Ron Paul banks on networking and ‘oomph’

Evy Mages For The Washington Post - Ron Paul, president of Eagle Bank, in the branch downstairs of his office, 7815 Woodmont Ave, Bethesda, MD, December 12, 2012. Eagle Bank is one of the most successful small local banks.

What’s left to say about local banker Ron Paul, the self-made Washington banker/real estate success who has been honored, profiled, photographed and talked about for more years than his EagleBank has been churning out profits?

We could talk about his world-class sports memorabilia collection (He’s got a baseball from the perfect game Don Larsen pitched in the 1956 World Series). Let’s not. Been there, done that.

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How about his two kidney transplants? Old news.

Philanthropy? Box already checked. (His passion is the National Kidney Foundation.)

The most interesting thing to me about Paul is his rise from a hungry middle-class kid to a business lord in one of the most important cities in the world.

He loves talking real estate, banking and how networking is the key to every business success. He can reel off the return on various parts of his real estate empire — he owns 15 buildings. He has his own private equity firm called Bethesda Investments. He’s successful enough that he’s happy to talk about his few missteps.

“One was a carpet company, and one was a national home improvement company,” said Paul, 56. “They were bad investments because I didn’t understand them and I couldn’t devote the time to them. Invest in things that you know.”

What he knows is banking and real estate.

His 8 percent share of publicly held EagleBank is worth more than $30 million. The bank, which has $2.7 billion in deposits, has grown 20 percent a year and has 15 uninterrupted quarters of earnings growth. Eagle has 400 employees across 16 branches, from Silver Spring to Reston.

Eagle is responsible for funding hundreds of local businesses, from Georgetown Cupcake to Tiny Jewel Box to downtown’s Shakespeare Theatre to Jose Andres’s Think Food Group of restaurants.

Eagle this year has soared onto the Post 200 list of biggest companies in Washington.

“I always knew I wanted to go into business for myself,” said Paul, who fell in love with accounting his senior year of high school. “I always had that oomph . . . that entrepreneurial side.”

While he was in college, he worked at an eatery at Ted Lerner’s White Flint Mall, where he centralized its food purchases. As a sophomore at the University of Maryland, he ran a school dance marathon and tripled the previous year’s fundraising.

His involvement also taught him at a young age the importance of networking.

He got to know the president of the local chapter of the American Cancer Society.

He got to know the chancellor of the University of Maryland at College Park.

After graduation, he joined Coopers & Lybrand accounting firm in New York. But his contacts in Washington led him back, and he took a bookkeeping job at a Rockville construction firm in 1980.

Two years later, an impatient Paul decided to start a real estate company. He and his wife were living in an apartment in Montgomery County on his wife’s salary as a social worker. His construction company job had held back his salary because it was facing difficulties.

He decided to jump off his own fiscal cliff.

In 1983, Paul persuaded banker Bob Pincus, chief executive of D.C. National Bank at the time (and his current partner at Eagle), to loan him $3.5 million to buy a 196-unit apartment building near 16th Street in downtown Washington.

“I was very, very nervous,” said Paul. “But I understood how to read a balance sheet and income statement. I could see where the weaknesses were on that balance sheet and what to buy on my own to make it better.”

He learned the basics of real estate: Economies of scale save money. Renovations — and customer service — allow you to charge higher rents. “It’s more than just slapping paint on the wall,” he said.

Paul’s Washington real estate barony now includes 1 million square feet of office space and 1,500 apartment units.

Paul saw his opportunity in banking during the real estate recession of the late 1990s.

“I realized the relationships real estate developers had with banks were extremely fickle,” Paul said. “The banks loaned you money in good times and ignored you in bad times. I decided, along with some others, there was a huge opportunity to build relationships during good times and bad times.”

He and the other founders of the bank raised $12.5 million from family and friends. Paul put up nearly $1 million of his own cash, and they launched EagleBank in 1998.

“There is a place for a large, well-capitalized bank that understands the market, knows the local decision-makers and understands local relationships,” Paul said.

Example?

“Five years ago, we had a law firm. A friend called to say, ‘You have to meet with this law partner right away.’ The bank was calling their loan and they needed to start a new relationship with a bank right away.”

Paul spent four hours on a Saturday morning with the lawyer at the Silver Diner on Rockville Pike, poring over the financials. Then he committed to a loan on the spot.

“Most banks would have said, ‘Send me the information and somebody will get back to you.’ In our case, the chairman of the bank met with this guy.”

The chairman still networks like mad, making new contacts, creating new business opportunities.

“I am out with clients and customers every night,” he said.

Well, not every night.

He has found time to attend the Masters golf tournament at Augusta National in Georgia on five occasions, and has played the course once.

But then again, he was probably doing business on the golf course.

For previous Value Added columns, go to washingtonpost.com/business.

 
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