Not surprisingly, the man who just sank more than $70 million into the Riggs National Bank is optimistic about the institution's future.
"When I first offered to pay $67.50 a share, people said I was crazy," said Joe L. Allbritton. "Now -- it's a good buy. In two years, the story will be that 'he stole the bank right out from under our eyes.'"
Allbritton bought control of the area's largest financial institution at a time when rapid change and more competition than ever confronts banking, a prospect that does not awe him, he indicated in a wide-ranging interview yesterday.
"Things at the Riggs are doing just fine. I like my investment," he said. "If things are to be done in banking, we are in the best position to do it."
The acquisition of approximately 40 percent of the Washington bank's stock made it part of Allbritton's already substantial business empire -- the worth of which was conservatively estimated at more than $200 million before he acquired the bank. It was a tough acquisition, including a courtroom battle that cost the bank half a million dollars -- and Allbritton even more -- in legal expenses.
Elected chairman of the executive committee of the bank's board of directors, Allbritton is self-effacing about the role he will play. "I'm kind of waiting for management to give me a clue about what they want me to do," he said. But what he expects, among other things, is for the bank to improve its earnings from an annual compounded rate of growth of nearly 12 percent last year to 15 percent.
What else is in the future?
Allbritton expects to exercise an oversight role at the bank, leaving its day-to-day management to bank officials. "I can't be too high in praise of management," he said. "I have done some things myself, but I'm much more effective in an overview role," he said. "Good management is a portion of what I bought my investment in," he said.
But he added later, "Maybe I'll be a bit of a sparkplug for ideas."
When interstate banking comes to the area, as almost everyone in banking believes it will, Riggs will prevail. "One thing I am sure about with Riggs -- whatever comes to banking, Riggs should be the principal," not a subsidiary, Allbritton said. "It will be the principal bank in the capitol of the free world."
Told that officials of most of the major banks in the area all take the position that they will prevail when mergers begin hitting the area, Allbritton said, "I'm sure they do all say that, and I'm sure they all believe that. But I know that. There is a difference."
"Our involvement in Riggs was not an accident," he said.
Aggressive marketing. Loan officers at Allbritton's banks in Houston and Alief, Texas, are sort of a financial welcome wagon, calling on people opening new businesses. Allbritton said he expects Riggs will expand its own similar efforts and will solicit professionals such as attorneys. "I never found [professionals] to be great big credit risks," he said.
"I used to finance dentists coming out of school -- give them money to buy their chair. I never lost any money. And orthodontist, you give them a special rate," he said.
New directions. By his own assessment and by reputation Allbritton is a man who sifts through options carefully, then moves agressively in the direction he chooses. One option might be augmenting services the bank now provides through complete bookkeeping -- toting up assets and liabilities, income and expenses -- for its customers, he said. Another option is more mortgage financing, possibly through the acquisition of a savings and loan.
On the other hand, Allbritton said, banks may simply continue "the minuet of banking -- but take the show on the road and do the minuet in Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia, doing the traditional things that banks have always done."
In fact, the bank's first obligation is to provide those traditional services, he said. Only after that is done well, a bank can expand its services.
"Banking must afford greater service to more people to assure its continuance as a principal safeguard of the public's money," he said.
Allbritton is quick to emphasis that he is not set on changing the venerable bank he bought in any particular direction yet.
"I have no immediate plans," he said. "In my opinion it's a quality bank" that would be a good investment even if it made no major changes, he said.
"With Riggs we begin with a bank with a superb reputation, great historical roots and a very clean set of books, so you're not wrestling alligators to see if you can drain the swamp to see if you can grow a crop," he said. "It's as attractive a banking opportunity as is around, even if you do no more -- and some people may say especially if you do no more -- than has been done."
"If it does just a wee bit more . . . it will grow to meet the needs of people," he said.
Allbritton's previous banking experience centered on Houston, an area growing so aggressively that it is possible for a bank to double its earnings in five years. Washington is a different type of market but extremely promising, Allbritton said.
The basis of Allbritton's fortune was in deals he made in Houston, moving into areas where growth followed.
"I have observed that the opportunities in a given community are rarely seen by the people who grew up there," he said. Although he had grown up in Houston, having migrated with his family from Mississippi when he was a young boy, he was fortunate in seeing where the city was going rather than being transfixed by where it had been, he indicated.
"I wouldn't want to compare that to my coming to Washington," he said . "That might be insulating to some, or seem like braggadocio."
"If I have been fortunate enough to see some business opportunities in Washington and avail myself of those, it wouldn't be fair to say those hadn't been lying around for many years."
For instance, The Washington Star, which was neck-deep in financial difficulties when he took it over, "was hardly an exclusive opportunity," he said.
Allbritton said he expects that banks, with their reputation for soundness, will fare well against money market funds, investment bankers, and other institutions that increasingly are edging into traditional bank markets. With money market funds, for instance, "when one of these money market funds get into trouble -- and one almost certainly will, because you're dealing with money," he said, "then the public will say, 'What am I doing with my money?' and drop back to the Maginot line of safety, the banks."
"If it's a great line of defense, that solidarity -- that confidence that the public has in banks -- can be a great beginning for progressive moves, too," he said.
Allbritton said he hopes to see banks compete in a less regulated environment where the market sets the rates. In that environment, Riggs will do fine, even if the big money center banks from Chicago and New York attempt to move into the area, he said.
Allbritton once opened a bank in Tomball, Texas, he recalled. The only competition was the Guardian Bond Bank of Tomball "When we did our survey in Tomball, the report was exhilarating for a potential competitor. The local bank had been rude to its customers, abused them and overcharged them."
Allbritton's group got a charter, confidently expecting to pick up the old bank's customer base. Shortly before the new bank opened, however, "this old banker who had been sitting behind his big mahogany desk watching everything stepped out from behind that big mahogany desk and was down at the door shaking hands with everyone."
"We got practically nothing out of Guardian Bond," Allbritton said.
If a bank treats its customers with a measure of courtesy, cutomers are reluctant to leave, he said.
"It doesn't concern me that the mighty banks of New York want to invade," said Allbritton. "They may learn some of the lessons we learned in Tomball."
Allbritton expects eventually that "the Riggs," as he calls it, will pick up addiitonal business on the strength of his association with it. "I'm perceived by a lot of people to be a bit of a character," he said, apparently comfortable with the description.
He has noticed, he said, that as a result, people seldom fail to return his calls or agree to a meeting with him, if only out of curiosity.
"If I make a good impression, perhaps they'll give us their business."