The Bank of Dad
Interest Is High as Robert Allbritton Weighs the Future Of the Washington Institution Acquired by His Father
By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 23, 2004; Page C01
Joe Allbritton's bank near the White House is classically bankish: a Greek temple on the outside, a marble sanctuary on the inside, with Ionic pilasters, heraldic shields, gold trim. The air smells like antique bronze and old money. You know this place, the flagship Riggs Bank. Look at the back of that $10 bill in your wallet. That view of the Treasury Building is one you can see from Riggs's granite front stoop, looking across Pennsylvania Avenue NW. It's a Riggs-centric perspective, engraved on the nation's currency, befitting Washington's most fabled bank and its storied banking family.
Turn the view around and peek back inside the temple. There is turmoil. Investigation. Mortification. A $25 million fine. Also, to make it all more complicated, the passing of a torch to a new generation. There's a feeling that the perspective could soon shift dramatically, or vanish altogether, leaving only the $10 bill as a record of how the world once looked. But for the moment, as Washington's spring thickens into summer, time seems to have slowed, paused. A dynasty and a bank and even a piece of the Washington soul stand poised between a singular past and what comes next.
Once upon a time, establishment Washington dismissed the patriarch as "the little Texan." Joe Allbritton, not much over five feet tall, was acquiring establishment icons, especially Riggs, the "bank of presidents." Over the years, 21 First Families had deposited their money there. Allbritton made it the bank of embassies, too, the bank of limousines and large withdrawals on jet-set weekends. Always it was the bank of trust funds and legacies, generational nest eggs carefully acquired, conservatively nurtured, faithfully compounded. The Riggs name was gold, and before long no one was more established than quiet, private, philanthropic, board-sitting, art-buying, horse-racing Joe Allbritton.
Meanwhile, outside his window, a growing list of homegrown icons disappeared beneath the riptides of business and fortune: Garfinckel's, Woodies, Hechinger, Peoples Drug, the Washington Star.
Not Riggs, Joe Allbritton said more than once. He would never let go of his icon.
Now the Texan is riding into the sunset, and one morning inside the temple across from the $10 tableau, a meeting is being run by his son -- the only child, the scion, custodian of the interwoven legacies of the father and the bank. He is Robert Allbritton and the meeting is the annual shareholders gathering on the last Thursday of May.
Robert Allbritton is not classically bankish. He is 35, close to six feet tall and lanky, with brown hair neither thinning nor graying. Among the wrinkled bank directors, the boyish chairman and chief executive officer looks like a college kid trapped with the trustees of his alma mater on graduation day. He is animated, informal, unafraid to lighten the mood.
"This is the part where I always say, 'The SEC made me do it,' " he cracks before reading some mandatory boilerplate from the Securities and Exchange Commission.
He speaks of the "refreshing and contemporary face" he wants to give Riggs. In style, at least, it won't be his father's bank anymore. He is dumping the embassy business. He is wooing less elite customers -- regular people -- by adding branches and extending hours.
A shareholder asks Allbritton a fundamental question: In its current turmoil, will Riggs be sold to a big out-of-town bank?
The son dodges the question -- but later the bank confirms that, yes, purchase offers will be considered.
As old as Greek theater is the theme of the son trying to forge his own identity from -- and apart from -- the legacy of his father. This son seems to think he can both honor the past and embrace the future.
Closing the meeting, Robert Allbritton tells shareholders, "Thank you for your investment in Riggs -- a Washington tradition.
"Now open on Saturdays and Sundays, too."
Pressures may be piling on his slender shoulders, but Robert Allbritton appears to carry them lightly.
Federal regulators declared Riggs a "troubled institution" earlier this year, after finding Riggs failed to heed money-laundering rules requiring big transactions to be reported. Tens of millions of dollars moved in and out of accounts of foreign embassies, including Saudi Arabia and Equatorial Guinea. Riggs was just fined a record $25 million.
"It is clear that Riggs Bank needed to act more quickly to adapt to regulatory changes that took place after September 11," Allbritton told shareholders at the meeting. "We regret that we did not. We have made changes, and we will make more."
A few mornings later, his suit coat is slung over a chair in a bank conference room. He is self-deprecating. He tells the story of his inauspicious beginning in banking a dozen years ago, when the government major from Wesleyan University was casting about after graduation.
"I didn't have a clue," he recalls. "So if you've got family businesses, you do the obvious thing. 'Okay, Dad. Put me in, coach.' "
The father put the son in the department that managed investments.
As the son remembers it, "You're kind of young, you're idealistic, and all of the sudden I'm doing analysis work on whether Philip Morris is a good buy or not. It's just kind of mentally repugnant. I didn't have anything against Philip Morris, it's just that's where you were in life. You know you're in the wrong place when you're looking up at the clock going, is it 5:30 yet? I did that for about 90 days and finally went back to Dad and said, 'I can't do this.' "
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Joe and Barbara Allbritton on the occasion of his being honored by the Business Hall of Fame in 2002.
(Rebecca D'angelo For The Washington Post)