There are more pressing issues on the minds of D.C. bankers, but there probably is none as intriguing as the recent change in control at Security National Bank.
Whatever happens at Security from here on may be of significance to competitors, but for now, at least, it's not the bank on which the industry's attention is focused. Speculation centers, instead, on former Security chairman Leo M. Bernstein, who sold his interest in the bank for more than $10 million.
Bernstein has made a career of buying huge blocks of stock and gaining control of D.C. banks. In just under 20 years, he has parlayed millions of dollars in earnings from real estate and other investments into positions of power at fully a third of the District's commercial banks. He has either been chairman, vice chairman or principal stockholder in seven banks and one savings and loan association.
Three years after taking control at Security, Bernstein decided to sell his controlling interest and "become very liquid" after running into what he carefully described earlier this week as "differences over policies.
"I wanted to be a multibank holding company with Women's National Bank as part of the company," he said.
It was not the first time that Bernstein chose to sell his interest in a bank rather than repeatedly going to the boardroom mat over internal differences. He sold a major position in NS&T Bank and relinquished the vice chairman's seat in 1981, prior to taking over the failing Diplomat National Bank. After boosting Diplomat's assets from $2 million to $20 million, Bernstein changed its name to Washington Bank and merged it into Security.
Ironically, NS&T attempted a merger with Security while Bernstein was still chairman of Washington Bank. This time, however, it was Bernstein who thwarted NS&T's plans by outmaneuvering his old colleagues.
It is equally ironic that Bernstein now boasts that D.C. National Bank is "the most successful of its kind in Washington today." Bernstein bought a large block of stock in D.C. National almost 20 years ago and held the reins as chairman, president and chief executive officer before coveting the chairman's office at NS&T. "We stopped being a retail bank and became a business bank," he says of the strategy he directed at D.C. National.
Even though Bernstein sold his interest in Security, he retains control of a majority of the stock in Women's National Bank, which he bought last year while still the principal stockholder in Security. In the role as "adviser" to Women's National, Bernstein sits on the bank's board as chairman of its executive and audit committees.
Now that he is free to devote more time to Women's National, however, Bernstein is expected to use it as a new base for launching banking concepts that run counter to the more conservative practices of the local industry.
Notwithstanding new marketing strategies being contemplated, its unlikely that the fledgling Women's National will be the 69-year-old Bernstein's last hurrah in banking. Whether Bernstein decides eventually to acquire another D.C. bank is uncertain at the moment but his plans to form a new bank holding company for Women's National suggest several possibilities.
Bernstein left little doubt about his intentions Tuesday when he declared: "I feel I have just started."
From his "very liquid" position and through a revival of the holding company that was formed to operate Washington Bank -- "I still own the rights to Washington Bankshares Inc." -- Bernstein hopes to establish a new bank in Georgetown or to acquire one that already exists in the Washington market -- a feat that he believes is possible in the current banking environment.
"I'm interested in making loans to people who want to start their own business," Bernstein remarked in a sketchy description of new marketing ideas he hopes to put into effect. "I'm interested in people as customers of his banks who now work for others and want to start their own business. All they have to do is prove that they are good credit risks.
"I'm looking for a way to put bank credit cards out to the public from a District bank. No District bank offers a credit card today.
"I want to lend money to people who want to invest in fine arts, jewelry and antiques. For the affluent today I think the best investment they can make is in the arts and fine jewelry. I'm going to do it in the District where nobody ever tried to do it."
Finally, citing his "seasoned experience," Bernstein promises to be as much "adviser" as banker to borrowers and investors.
To some in the industry, Bernstein is something of a banking gadfly. To others, he is Parsifal looking for banking's Holy Grail.