Leo M. Bernstein has 77,318 reasons for wanting to see Women's National Bank return to profitability.
Those reasons are shares that represent 51 percent of the stock in Women's National, and Bernstein has more to lose--or gain--than anybody connected with the beleaguered bank.
But it's not Bernstein who is worrying these days about the future of the slightly disorganized and financially ailing Women's National. In fact, Bernstein promises that Women's National will be in the black before year's end.
That should be reassuring to those minority stockholders who left last week's annual meeting of First WNB Corp., the bank's holding company, incensed over what they described as management's refusal to answer questions about Women's National's condition or plans to improve it.
"There are a lot of things going on there that stockholders don't know about and aren't being told," one shareholder complained after the eight-minute annual meeting. "This is a sham."
That's been the complaint of Women's National stockholders since directors of the holding company disclosed in May that they had agreed to sell Bernstein enough shares to give him control of the bank's stock. Bernstein completed his tender offer for 51 percent of the stock in June, putting himself squarely in the middle of an imbroglio that began with the resignation of Women's National's former chief executive officer for medical reasons.
Faced with a string of losses and a void in leadership at the bank, directors of First WNB Corp. initiated a hasty and controversial search for a buyer.
Now that Bernstein is principal owner of Women's National's stock, some shareholders are looking for him to provide answers they weren't able to get from the holding company. As an investor, Bernstein is under no obligation to devise a plan for Women's National. In theory, he is no different than other stockholders who are waiting for the holding company to develop a plan to put the bank back on track.
But Bernstein has experience in managing or influencing the affairs of four Washington banks and an investment of more than $1.3 million in Women's National, which puts him in the catbird seat. It's natural, therefore, for other stockholders to seek his counsel. Bernstein didn't amass his wealth by trusting his investments to dumb luck.
Although admittedly bothered by First WNB Corp.'s deal with Bernstein, one shareholder acknowledged that Bernstein is "getting the brunt of it for something that happened before he was there. I have no doubt that Mr. Bernstein is capable of running a bank. We just want to know what's going on."
For his part, Bernstein wants "to see that bank get in the black as quickly as I can."
But majority stockholder is not to be confused with chief executive officer of Women's National. As chairman of Security National Bank, Bernstein can't run another Washington bank or even hold office in another.
The comptroller's office, acting under the Change in Bank Control Act, gave Bernstein permission to buy control of the floundering Women's National. Because of his sizable investment and the special circumstances at Women's National, Bernstein also got approval to act as an interim adviser to the bank, which is continuing to search for a president.
"I don't intend to work there, but I intend to straighten things out and get their affairs in order before the end of the year," Bernstein said. "I'll get it straightened out, but I want somebody to get in there and run it the way it's supposed to be run. And I don't want a figurehead."
A formal search committee is yet to be formed, but minority stockholders at least can take comfort in Bernstein's support of their preference for a woman to head the bank. Moreover, Bernstein believes that Women's National can be a viable, full-service banking institution and still provide services and counseling tailored to special needs of women's organizations and women-owned businesses.
But that will take stronger management, more efficient systems and strong evidence that Women's National's problems are only temporary. Bernstein concedes as much.
He contends, nevertheless, that, despite its temporary problems, Women's National is one of the strongest banks--for its size--in the District.
"It's strong in capital; just weak in procedures," Bernstein insisted. "It's really 40 times better than I found Diplomat."
Bernstein bought troubled Diplomat National, put it in the black and merged it into Security. He said he already has a deal lined up that should put Women's National back on track. In fact, Women's National is "well on the way to getting back on even keel," he said.
Bernstein can help the process by sharing more information with stockholders, perhaps at one of Women's National's popular brown bag lunches.