Allbritton Era Comes to Riggs
No Go-Go Outfit Under 'Conservatively Aggressive' Banker
By Martha M. Hamilton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 12, 1981; Page G1
"If you're going to go into business and don't expect to live 500 years, choose the business to be desired by buying a portion of an existing firm," Joe L. Allbritton said in 1970.
Allbritton, who apparently doesn't expect to live 500 years, last month bought into Washington banking with his control purchase of the Riggs National Bank, the area's largest financial institution.
In many respects the transaction followed a pattern set in previous Allbritton bank buys in Houston, where he also got into the business by purchasing a venerable bank.
But this time the takeover was marked by a bitter fight with Riggs management, which tried unsuccessfully to block Allbritton. In the end, Riggs management settled, Allbritton took over and everybody embraced.
Now the question is: What will Allbritton do with the bank? Why did he buy it?
If past is prologue and his Houston banking activities are any guide, he will shepherd it into an era of even greater growth, keeping a careful eye on the bank and bringing in new business but allowing management to handle most day-to-day decisions.
The other thing that Allbritton's banking experience and bankers who have known and worked with him suggest is that he will be around for awhile at Riggs. He is not likely to spin in and out as he did with The Washington Star, which he sold for double his money after three years.
"I don't think he got into it with any idea of other than a lifetime commitment," said Billy D. Goldberg, a former Texas Democratic state chairman who is involved in banking in Houston. "By the same token, he would not fall in love with it to the extent he would turn down a good offer," he said.
"He doesn't get in for the purpose of resale. He gets into it with the idea of taking what it does well and making it better," Goldberg said. "Any institution in which he is involved is in good hands. He surrounds himself with good men," he said.
With his Houston banks Allbritton "didn't try particularly to furrow a bunch of new paths," Goldberg said. "I don't think you can anticipate a lot of revolutionary stuff."
Those who have been involved with Allbritton in banking draw a picture of a man who moves only after considerable research and planning but who moves unhesitatingly after he has chosen the direction.
The presidents of the two banks that Allbritton controls now in Houston used almost identical phrases to describe him. "Mr. Allbritton is a conservatively aggressive businessman," said James A. Woodall Jr., president of the First Alief Bank.
"He's been a very successful banker, a very well-respected banker with an excellent track record," said Tom Wren, president of University State Bank and soon to be a director of Riggs. "He's aggressive, yet conservative."
Allbritton's first financial institution was the San Jacinto Savings & Loan, which he organized in 1956. He sold his interest later for a profit, but noted that he could have produced even more growth and made even more money if he had gone through the same motions with an existing thrift institution rather than creating his own.
In 1961 Allbritton bought about 45 percent of the stock of Citizens Bank and Trust for approximately $2.5 million. This year he bought approximately 40 percent of Riggs stock for more than $70 million.
Over the years he sold off his interest and relinquished control of that bank but took control of another bank, Houston Bank and Trust, later in the 1960s. In 1970, a group headed by Allbritton announced that he had regained control of Citizens Bank and proposed a merger with Houston Bank & Trust.
"He put together two old banks, venerable institutions," said Ben Love, chairman of Texas Commerce Bancshares, Houston's largest bank holding company. Houston Bank & Trust had been founded in 1875 (which makes it old by Houston standards) by Decimus et Ultimus Barziza.
The merger produced the fifth-largest bank in Houston, which two years later was acquired as a wholly owned subsidiary of First International Bancshares, the largest bank holding company in the South and Southwest at the time. That happened after banking interests had won legislation allowing bank holding companies, which had formerly been prohibited in Texas.
Allbritton emerged as the largest individual shareholder in the holding company in the early 1970s but gradually sold his interest in the bank.
Allbritton's achievement with the Houston banks was striking -- all the more so because he didn't start out with trouble-free institutions. According to Love, Houston Bank & Trust was burdened by poorly performing real estate loans when Allbritton took over. "He showed real skill in helping resolve some troublesome loans," he said.
"He did a splendid job in building business for the bank. He led the bank into a better era," Love said. The mark of how well he succeeded was the bank holding company's interest in merging Allbritton's banks into it, Love said. "He demonstrated considerable skill in putting together two banks with a great tradition but not as active as they might have been."
"He is a complex man -- a very intelligent fellow," he said. "He's a thorough person. He studies things. He is a concept man."
As far as Riggs' future, Love predicted that Allbritton "won't convert it into a go-go kind of bank. He's a professional. He's a quality banker," he said. Love added that he expected Allbritton would work through the people already in place at the bank rather than replacing them.
Allbritton retains Houston banking interests, although during the fight for control he raised the possibility that he might relinquish those. His banks in Houston are growing and positioned for more growth.
Allbritton gained control of University State Bank on May 27, 1976. It was founded as the first suburban bank in the Houston area in 1941. Growth since then has made it midway between a suburban and a downtown bank, located within a 5- to 8-minute drive from downtown.
In May 1976, the bank had a little more than $50 million in deposits, president Wren said. At the close of the most recent quarter, deposits were $108 million. At the end of 1980, University ranked 30th among 173 Houston banks.
Now University is building a $15 million nine-story office building a few blocks from its current location.
According to Wren, Allbritton produced growth by adding new business and commercial services without deemphasizing personal banking services, which had characterized the bank. "It has not been Mr. Allbritton's practice to go in and make dramatic major changes," Wren said.
The day-to-day operations are in the hands of Wren (who one associate characterized as "an old-time banker -- a character banker -- a handshake banker") and his staff. "He has a staff that he certainly delegates responsibility to as well as authority," Wren said. "But he's certainly always aware of what's going on."
University State Bank is owned by a one-bank holding company, University Bancshares of which Allbritton owns 100 percent. If there are no regulatory hang-ups, University Bancshares eventually will become a two-bank holding company with First Alief Bank merged into it. Allbritton owns 68 percent of First Alief Bank.
First Alief was founded nearly 11 years ago in Alief (pronounced with an emphasis on the long 'a'), an area on the western edge of Houston that is not separately incorporated but which has a separate identity.
When the bank was founded, Alief was still predominately "a bunch of farmers." Now it is "one of the most rapidly developing areas of Houston" with potential for major commercial growth, according to Woodall.
The bank has $28 million in total assets and $25.2 million in deposits. It ranked 122nd among Houston's 173 banks at the end of 1980.
© 1981 The Washington Post Company