Geoffrey Cook's first interaction as a PNC Bank customer was a little bumpy.
At 10 a.m. yesterday, the D.C. lawyer popped in his new PNC card into an ATM, activated it and asked for his account balance. The machine immediately spat out his card and a receipt, "Transaction selected cannot be processed."
A series of brief conversations with the personnel at Riggs Bank branch at 1919 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, two more attempts with the ATM, a phone call to the Riggs help line, and 10 minutes later, Cook learned that he won't be able to get his account balance at an ATM until Monday, when the conversion of all Riggs's systems to PNC's is complete. He was able to get cash.
"I took the money, but I want to see my account information," said Cook, a Riggs customer for about six years. Riggs yesterday was officially taken over by PNC Bank in Pittsburgh after 169 years as an independent bank with close ties to the federal government and its capital city. PNC is transferring more than 200,000 deposit and loan accounts to its own system in a conversion process that, if all goes as planned, will be complete Monday morning, when all former Riggs branches re-open as PNC branches.
Riggs ATM and credit cards stopped working yesterday morning. Customers must activate their PNC cards to withdraw money from a machine or perform debit card transactions. Riggs's online banking Web site went down for good yesterday afternoon, and online access to PNC won't be available for former Riggs customers over the weekend. All 51 PNC branches will be closed over the weekend.
Brian Goerke, PNC spokesman, said the transition was going forward as anticipated, with no systemwide glitches. Customer complaints or questions are being dealt with as soon as PNC becomes aware of them, he said. The company has been planning the integration of Riggs for 10 months.
For customers accustomed to Riggs, the transition was accompanied by minor annoyances, some confusion and nostalgia.
Lenore Jacobs, 68, had tried to activate her new PNC bank card by telephone, "but it was more convoluted than it ought to have been." So the Georgetown resident and longtime Riggs Bank customer called her regular manager at the Georgetown branch, and he suggested she activate the card by using the ATM. "It always helps to know someone in management," she said.
Stephanie Ziomek, national marketing director for Ringler Associates, an annuity brokerage company at 1900 L St. NW, has one checking account with Riggs, but earlier this week she received three ATM/check cards from PNC, each with different numbers and expiration dates.
"I called to say I got three cards from PNC, but the Riggs person on the phone said they were in transition and couldn't answer my questions about my PNC card," Ziomek said. "I called PNC today. They didn't know why I had received three cards."
She activated one of the cards and went to the nearby Riggs branch. She was able to get cash but no account balance information. "That's kind of scary," she said. "I hope there's nothing that gets lost in the transition."
Some customers were sympathetic. "It was confusing to me because everything is confusing to me, but it's not PNC's fault," said Barb Piekarski, a customer of Riggs's Chevy Chase branch, which was plagued yesterday morning with non-functioning ATMs. Piekarski, however, credited PNC with being "very straightforward" about the changes.
One change is the new PNC banking cards issued to Riggs customers, which are a combination ATM card and Visa check card. Riggs offered customers a choice of whether they wanted their ATM card to double as a check card -- many consumers don't like using a Visa or MasterCard number that allows merchants to deduct purchases directly from their bank accounts, because if the number ever falls into the wrong hands, their bank accounts can be emptied.
Two customers yesterday said that when they requested only an ATM card, PNC told them it would charge them $10 for an ATM-only card. But PNC's Goerke said the company won't be charging the $10 fee in the Washington area.
"We made a decision at the outset not to charge this fee in greater Washington," he said. "Any customer who has a check card currently who would like to move to an ATM card only will not be charged."
Ziomek said a PNC call-center employee had told her she could expect the $10 charge. "I just don't want that $10 fee on the table, on principle," she said. "There's a Wachovia across the street, and if I continue to find there's fees and mismanagement I'll switch."
Such sentiments and frustrations are common in major bank mergers -- and in newspaper stories that put them under the microscope. For some Riggs customers, however, the change is wrenching: Riggs was the last major commercial bank standing in the Washington area that hadn't been bought out after 20 years of near-constant bank mergers. Also, because PNC wanted to take control of all of Riggs systems concurrent with the merger -- which officially closed at 5 p.m. yesterday -- the mostly minor frustrations of a bank merger that usually take place in dribs and drabs over months are concentrated in a few days.
"I'm traumatized," said Christine Kovach, a downtown worker whose grandmother set up Kovach's first Riggs account when she was a young girl in the 1960s, at Riggs's once-familiar "Ladies Teller" windows downtown. She has always been satisfied with Riggs service, if not always its deposit rates. "This is a real institution in this city and in my family."
Kovach and colleague Donnetta Luke, a 20-year customer, were at the 1919 Pennsylvania branch to shake hands with the branch employees they've come to know and wish them well. Luke activated her PNC card and turned in her old Riggs card. Kovach, however, wanted to keep her Riggs card and its familiar eagle.
"I'm going to let mine expire with dignity," Kovach said.
Robin Sutliff, 31, owner of Ultra Violet Flowers at 31st Street and Oak Alley NW, said she has had her business and personal accounts with Riggs all her life. "And my parents did, and my grandparents too," she said. The demise of Riggs "came as quite a shock," she said. "It's sad to see it go."
Earlier yesterday morning, Allen Weston of Jack Stone Signs was removing the brass "Riggs National Bank" that had decorated the door of the Corcoran branch on Pennsylvania Avenue for more than 100 years. It was the last Riggs sign to come down.
Weston started at the end with the "K" and worked his way back, the metal letters clanging as he tossed them into the bucket of his cherry picker.
A few knocks with the hammer and screwdriver, and the Riggs was gone.
Staff writers Michael Barbaro, Martha McNeil Hamilton, Larry Liebert and Nancy McKeon contributed to this story.