How much is a name worth to a bank?

The answer could prove to be expensive for the organizers of a proposed bank in the District and officials of a small, state-chartered bank in Falls Church.

The two organizations are at an impasse over which institution should be named "Enterprise Bank." Although the two organizations have sued one another to maintain the name, neither currently does business as "Enterprise Bank."

"It's another Star Wars adventure over the name "Enterprise," a spokesman for one organization quipped.

Organizers of the proposed Enterprise Bank N.A. have received approval from the comptroller of the currency to establish a banking institution in the District in February. The group, which is headed by Jeffrey M. Bucher, a former Federal Reserve governor, expects to sell between $5 million and $6 million in an initial stock offering scheduled to commence this week.

But Bucher and his associates discovered to their dismay last month that Town & Country Bank & Trust Co. of Falls Church plans to change its name to Enterprise Bank, of all things.

"As far as federal authorities are concerned, that's our name," Bucher contends.

"This is causing me a lot of trials and tribulations," countered Donald Irvin, president of the $22-million-asset Town & Country Bank & Trust. "They're trying to take over our name."

Organizers of the proposed District bank have filed suit to block Town & Country's name-change plans, and Town & Country has responded with a suit of its own. A federal judge has refused to grant a temporary injunction sought by Bucher's group, but the matter is pending in U.S. District Court.

Lawyers who represent the parties in the dispute refused to comment further on the case, explaining that they "don't want to try it in the press." Others involved accuse their opponents of trying to steal their name.

Bucher and his associates filed an application at the comptroller's office last Feburary and received approval in August to proceed. Irvin insists his bank has been using "enterprise" in its marketing and services program for at least 10 months.

Town & Country has geared its services primarily to small- and medium-sized businesses, he explained. "We began searching for a new direction about a year ago to expand on what we were doing."

As a result, Town & Country developed a small business services concept that it markets under a registered service mark called "Enterprise," Irvin continued,

"We have obtained a lot of service mark registrations, and what we have done, basically, is our homework," said a spokesman for the bank.

The logical step is to change the name of the bank because, in the minds of customers, it has become synonomous with "enterprise," he added

"All I know is, when I started using "enterprise," I took legal steps and spent a lot of money to develop the service," Irvin said. "I cannot give up what I think is the direction of this small bank in these economic times."

Town & Country has reserved the name "Enterprise" with the Virginia State Corporation Commission, and stockholders will vote on the name change Nov. 10.

Both organizations maintain that two banks operating under the same name in the same market area would cause confusion among customers. But the real issue isn't the corporate name, says Irvin. "It's service mark law."

It's not clear which is the egg and which is the chicken in this case, and Bucher's group's lawsuit is designed to "find out from [Town & Country] when they started using 'Enterprise.' "

Some members of Bucher's group suspect that disclosure of their organizational efforts last March prompted Town & Country to adopt a new name.

For their part, Town & Country officials suspect "some large, out-of-town organization" of backing Enterprise Bank N.A.

"I feel like I'm being steamrolled by this big organization with unlimited financial resources," Irvin remarked.

Leonard Weil, an executive at Manufacturers Bank in Los Angeles, is an organizer of Enterprise Bank N.A., but Bucher insists that the local bank will operate independent of any other financial institution.

Like Town & Country, Enterprise Bank N.A. plans to offer specialized services to small- and medium-sized businesses and professionals in metropolitan Washington.

This isn't the first dispute over similarities in banks' names. As recently as last year, a mild protest was filed with the comptroller when Washington Bank N.A. (since merged into Security National Bank) sought to drop the name Diplomat.

As it is, bank names tend to confuse some people in metropolitan Washington. Consider D.C. National Bank, National Capital Bank, National Bank of Washington and Washington Bank N.A., before the merger with Security.

In the current dispute, both sides could save a lot of time and money by coming up with an enterprising solution in the form of a compromise.