While dozens of D.C. and out-of-state bankers fight City Hall over who may set up shop in the District, a local lawyer named Charles Emmet Lucey has quietly amassed the cash, personnel and approval to open a new financial institution here later this month.
It will be the District's 20th bank, and no less than Lucey's 79th.
Lucey, whose years in private practice have made him a well-known figure in Washington's legal and banking communities, reckons he has helped more than 75 clients start banks from Vail, Colo., to Myrtle Beach, S.C. Now, he's about to launch Federal City National Bank, which will be the fourth bank the 51-year-old Lucey has founded and run as an investment for himself.
"It's like a divorce lawyer who gets divorced," said Lucey, who strikes the air with a cigar when he talks. "I've helped other people start banks, and I've done them for myself."
Federal City's target market will be the area around Capitol Hill and Union Station, one of the fastest-growing sectors of the city. The bank, which is located at the corner of New Jersey Avenue and F Street NW, a few blocks from the Capitol, also wants to woo business from the surrounding suburbs, he said.
Federal City's future might seem all but certain, given Lucey's successes and the logic of the new bank's marketing plan. But Federal City is opening in the midst of unprecedented change and uncertainty in local and federal banking laws. The number and size of banks competing here could skyrocket overnight if regulators approve a dozen requests for bank charters or if several rumored acquisitions by major New York banks take place.
If Lucey's past is prologue for his newest venture, however, Federal City's balance sheet will be in the black within a few years, when Lucey will sell his stake, make a profit, and plunge into another project.
Lucey's peers and competitors describe him as a charismatic deal maker with a talent for building banks, someone well suited to surviving a shakeout should the local banking industry become overcrowded.
"He has done a good job at putting banks together, in the philosophy he uses to build them up, in the management teams he picks," said J. Robert Ritenour, a senior vice president of American Security Bank. "It's paid off. He's someone I would call a success."
Lucey said his new bank will offer a full spectrum of financial services but specialize in loans to small- and medium-size businesses, a much coveted niche sought by an increasing number of banks here. Federal City alone cannot make a loan larger than $550,000. But through an affiliation with Maryland National Bank, the biggest bank in Maryland and one eager to tap the D.C. market, Federal City will be able to make loans of any size.
Lucey said competition from the District's growing bevy of bankers doesn't worry him because he will target loans many other banks refuse, especially those to start businesses by people who are honest and hard working, but who may not have much in the way of collateral.
"I make loans others won't make," Lucey said. "I call them 'character loans.' " The strategy is the same one he followed at Century National Bank, located at 19th and I streets, which he founded in the District in 1983 and was chairman of until resigning and selling his shares last year.
"Take a look at all those little eateries around International Square -- Century funded most of them," he said. By investing in loans others might snub, Lucey said, his banks have been able to lend out 80 cents on every $1 of deposits, while competitors on average have been able to lend out only 55 cents. Heads Annapolis Bank
In addition to being chairman of Federal City, Lucey is director and a stockholder in Bay National Bank of Annapolis, which he founded and opened 14 months ago. Bay National expects to earn a profit this year -- a strong showing for such a young bank. In 1975, he founded Century National Bank of Chevy Chase, which, in 1980, was sold to Citizens Bank of Maryland.
In each case, Lucey said, he recruited a board of directors to reflect the strengths of the local economy. At Federal City, Lucey has followed the same recipe: Its board includes lawyers, real estate and hotel executives, restaurant owners and a major computer company official in charge of sales to the Pentagon.
But a well-connected board is useless if directors don't recruit business, Lucey said. "I always have a working board, none of those deals where the group rubber-stamps stuff, comes in for a cocktail once a month and such. No way."
His cigar held motionless for a second, he said, "Banks fail because of dishonesty or lack of internal controls. They don't fail for lack of opportunity."
The exceptions, he said, are the banks that hold many farm and energy loans, industries that have been hit by sudden changes in the market. The buoyant, diversified D.C. economy won't be victim of such vagaries and for years will remain among the nation's fastest growing, most lucrative banking markets, he said.
At a recent reception to celebrate the completion of Federal City's office, Lucey's strong ties to the local economy were hard to miss. He stood in one spot as a whirlwind of Washington power brokers sifted past to pay respects.
"Hello Mayor. Thanks for stopping by," he said, slapping Marion Barry on the shoulder.
"Here's James Whelan, the bank's new president," he said, introducing the bank official to a passer-by he had stopped. 'What Can I Do for You?'
"What can I do for you?" he said, turning attention to one of the few faces he didn't recognize at the gala.
Days later in his office he said of the reception, "That was layer on layer of a complicated power structure you saw there. A rich, very complicated network of this community."
Now that money for the bank has been raised and management chosen, Lucey said, the new enterprise will not burden his busy schedule.
"My showers in the morning will be spent planning for the bank, but I'll be spending my time hanging out here," he said, whipping his cigar through the air to indicate the law offices of Manatt, Phelps, Rothenberg, Tunney & Evans. "I'm a lawyer first, a banker second."
"We're a very political law firm," Lucey said of Manatt Phelps, which has strong ties to both the Democratic and Republican parties here and in California. "We have both sides covered." But, he added quickly, the law firm is not investing in Federal City, although some of the firm's partners are.
Wearing a white shirt with cufflinks adorned with pearls the size of quarters, Lucey sipped a diet soda to quell a headache that he said was the result of attending a Democratic fund-raiser the night before. As he chatted about his 27 years as a lawyer here, about his years at Georgetown Law School, and about his newest venture, soft music reminiscent of the fare in elevators and department stores wafted from a clock radio.
By applying for a national bank charter last spring, when regional interstate banking "was just a whisper," Federal City avoided the controversy surrounding those who have applied to open banks here since a new D.C. banking law was enacted in the fall, Lucey said.
Lucey got preliminary approval from the Comptroller of the Currency in July.
Last month, a stock offering raised $3.9 million on the sale of 390,000 shares. In fact, Federal City had to turn away $1.1 million in excess demand. Lucey owns 7.7 percent of the stock. Other directors and officers own another 24 percent.
He said his formula for success makes him confident he needn't worry about a population explosion in banks. "I generally favor competition," he said. 'Room for Good Banks'
"I suppose there could be too many banks, but we're nowhere near New York City," he said. "Besides, there's always room for good banks. I would define a good bank as one that understands and makes loans to its community. I don't need to go to Mexico to make loans. I can make more than enough loans right here."
Five days a week, Lucey is up at 5 a.m. to run seven miles. "It's for here," he said, thumping a finger on his forehead, "not weight."
"And I don't have any of those fancy running numbers, those awful outfits," he said, scowling, swinging the cigar back and forth and leaning across his desk for emphasis.
He said he prefers the ragamuffin figure he cuts running the streets and organizing the day ahead of him.
At 10 minutes to noon, Lucey jumped up and rushed off to meet a client who wants to open a bank "somewhere" in Northern Virginia.
He hurried out the door, pausing to toss a comment to a colleague or two in the hallway and to relate an anecdote about a schedule that might seem too hurried: "My mother used to ask me, 'Emmet, do you ever stop and pray for me?' And I used to tell her, 'Mom, I pray for you every time I run.' "