The Bank of Dad
He bought a horse farm in Upperville, where he breeds and raises descendants of equine celebrities like Secretariat and Seattle Slew. Allbritton's Hansel won the Preakness and Belmont Stakes in 1991.
He has been active on the boards of the Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan presidential libraries (never mind that Gerald Ford editorial). He donated the portrait of Reagan that hangs in the White House. Former president George H.W. Bush has attended Allbritton's post-Alfalfa brunch. When George W. Bush's inaugural parade passed the Riggs branch on Pennsylvania Avenue, he spotted Allbritton and said, "Hey Joe, how are you doing?"
But Allbritton has never sought to enhance his public profile. He rarely publicizes his extensive philanthropy, which can be gauged only by checking publicly available IRS documents. He has endowed a $9 million art institute and his foundations give more than $1 million a year to an eclectic list of recipients, including churches, hospitals and schools. "I do not think of myself as shy," he says. "However, I think the things I've done . . . can speak for themselves."
His role at the bank was inevitably more public. Bank analysts think he missed opportunities. In 1985, interstate banking became legal, and large out-of-town banks invaded the city and suburbs, grabbing customers and gobbling up smaller banks. Riggs slipped to the fifth- or sixth-largest bank in the region.
"We still shake our heads and say, 'Boy, what could have been done with that franchise?' " says Rockville-based bank consultant Arnold Danielson. "They thought getting on airplanes and flying to England was what it was all about, and they didn't recognize that Fairfax County and Montgomery County were where it's at."
Joe Allbritton answers the analysts this way: "Having had experience in expanding bank holdings in Texas, I did not find it attractive to try to be the biggest bank in several states. That was not my motivation."
The recent regulatory scandal -- a blow to Riggs's golden reputation -- has been painful to the family.
"They've just been devoting 24-7 trying to clear that up and nothing has been enough," says Charles Hall, a Houston friend and lawyer of Joe Allbritton's. "He wants to support his son. It's causing him great pain, what's going on. . . . And that his son is sitting there in the middle of it."
Sale: A Four-Letter Word
Robert Allbritton purposely chose an office on the other side of the corporate suite from his father. It has a minimalist decor, with a curving glass-topped desk. No French impressionists here. A couple of modernist posters were chosen to fit the color scheme, he says.
He just celebrated his first wedding anniversary. (Two months before the wedding he had a serious skiing accident. "You want to have an interesting experience, call the fiance. 'Hi, honey. I'm out here with the guys skiing. They just hauled me off the mountain, and I think I might have broken my neck.' ") He and his wife, Elena, a resident in dermatology at Washington Hospital Center, were married in a chapel of the Washington National Cathedral. He recently chaired the American Heart Association's fundraising gala. He serves on the dinner committee of the Alfalfa Club.
Allbritton says he and his father have different styles as chief executives. He calls his own approach "more team basis. Less lone-warrior basis." He admits his knowledge of banking may not be as deep as his father's, but he says he knows what he doesn't know and can delegate.
He just launched an advertising campaign touting "the new Riggs." The new Riggs revolves around your needs, not the other way around, according to the ad copy.
"That's the nonbanker speaking, honestly," Allbritton says. "Every other business that deals with the public offers an infinitely higher level of convenience than banks as an industry do."
To make the bank more convenient, Allbritton is adding 30 branches. He is keeping many branches open seven days a week, extending hours to 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.
The father has supported most of the changes, says the son. But some moves the son has had to present gingerly to the patriarch, such as getting out of most embassy and international banking -- the very areas Joe Allbritton personally promoted.
The Riggs Gulfstream jet -- aboard which Joe Allbritton used to travel the globe -- is now for sale.
Analysts have generally applauded the innovations. In addition to pulling out of embassy and international banking, Robert Allbritton's response to the regulatory scandal has included overhauling technology to make compliance easier and hiring senior executives with regulatory expertise. Some officers have been fired, including a diplomatic account manager. No top executives have been charged with crimes.
The new Riggs has something in common with the old Riggs, according to the ads. It is "a strong, independent bank that's served the Washington area for over 165 years."
Maybe not for long. Now that the heretical word "sale" is in the air.
Joe Allbritton still controls about 41 percent of the Riggs stock -- worth about $270 million -- and has an effective veto over any sale. The son won't say much about the possibility of selling his father's bank.
"You've got to do the right thing," he says. "That's a very complex equation and it's very difficult to determine exactly what the right thing is."
The former television executive still tries to look beyond the overnight ratings.
"You're going to be judged by your actions, not necessarily immediately but over the longer term. In 100 years we're all going to be dead. We're going to have something carved on the tombstone and the only thing that's going to be left are the memories that people have of what we did. . . . You want to be fairly well remembered at the end of the day. That does not necessarily mean being the biggest either. I think some of the people who are best remembered are those who weren't necessarily the biggest."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company