Five years ago when Emily Womach was first approached to spearhead the drive to create the Women's National Bank, she said no. "No way, no way do I want to do that," she remembers telling the group who ferreted her out during an executive search. Yet, after some consientious urging, she decided to give up a comfortable vice presidency at a major Delaware bank and throw her 36 years of banking experience into the uncertain future of what became the first federally chartered women's bank in the country.
Today, Womach, as well as her investors, have sterling proof that it was the right decision. The barely 2-year-old Women's National Bank tripled profits last year, to $176,575, over 1979 -- although most new banks require a full two years to show a profit. It also increased deposits 37 percent over 1979, while throughout the metropolitan area, banks averaged deposite increases of about 4 percent.
At the same time, Women's National, at 1627 K St. NW, moved out of last place in asset size among local banks, a distinction it had held since opening its doors in May 1972. Now, says Womach proudly, with deposits of $11.4 million, about 5,500 accounts and assets of $15.4 million as of December 1980, the bank ranks 16th instead of 17th among the District of Columbia banks, just ahead of the Diplomatic Bank.
Analysts are impressed. Lewis Sosnowik, a banking expert and head of the trading department of Lang & Co., a prominent stock brokerage, says the bank's progress has been remarkable. "They've done extremely well," he says. "They're one of the few banks that went into the black in less than a year. This is extremely unusual. In fact, I have never heard of that before now. It's an extremely well-managed bank. I'm very impressed with the management."
Two weeks ago, as the District celebrated Women's History Week along with other municipalities throughout the country, Womach spoke at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library along with local labor leader Geraldine Boykin and Alice Hunter, a representative from the Commission for Women. The forum drew an eager, but in many cases, professionally inexperienced audience. In a later interview she outlined some of the reasons for the new bank's uncommonly rapid move toward profitability in a crowded and tightly regulated market. Women have figured in prominently, both in need and in support.
"In my whole banking career, I've had women tell me, 'Emily, I have a problem I wouldn't dare tell anyone but you. I know I should know the answer and I feel badly that I don't -- but would you tell me anyway?'" she said. "That's what we do at the Women's Bank, a lot of informal couseling. We like to think we'll talk to anybody about anything -- anything but marital problems."
Mostly, it's an educational process," Womach said. "Women have begun to plan their career goals, but they have never been conditioned to think about money that way. That's changing."
About 65 percent of Women's National customers are women, many of whom are professionals, private consultants or entrepreneurs in need of some help in financial planning, Womach said. For them and for any interested parties, the bank sponsors weekly brown-bag lunch time seminars for $1 a session.
Women's National is a full-service bank, offering personal and business loans; various checking plans, including interest-bearing NOW accounts; and a money machine. The bank has aggressively pursued accounts from smaller local businesses and trade associations as well as women's groups.
"The exciting thing we say to women is, remember, if you're financially independent, you can do anything you want," she said. That supportive and understanding attitude that Womach and other lending officers try to convey is important, since federal regulations, by which all D.C. banks must abide, closely tailor the kinds of services federally chartered banks may provide. The attitude is also returned. "Most of our money is loyal money," said Womach, adding, "We have customers who come in and say they live in Annandale, or coming downtown is an inconvenience. But they come anyway because they support what we're doing."
Much of Womach's own advice to working women comes from her own, often lonely experience in a career she stumbled upon while her husband served in World War II. To help support her family, Womach began to work at a small community bank in Delaware in 1945. She found she enjoyed the work so much she stayed and eventually won lending and managerial positions, for years the only woman in the bank to do so.
In the meantime, she earned degrees from the American Institute of Banking, the Stonier Graduate School of Banking at Rutgers University and the University of Delaware. Perhaps as a result of that experience, she walks a moderate feminist line. She has learned to be a "hard-nosed banker," when she needs to be, she says, but supports a plethora of social service, community and women's groups. "I wouldn't want anyone to go through what I went through," she says simply.
She worked a stint as an administrative assistant to then governor of Delaware Charles Terry Jr. in 1968. After a term as state treasurer from 1971 to 1973, an unsuccessful run for the governorship in 1972 and a vice presidency of the Farmers Bank of the State of Delaware, Womach came to Washington late in 1976 to spearhead the then foundering drive for a women's bank.
Although the idea for a federally chartered women's bank had circulated since the early 1960s, no group of investors had obtained a charter. The first application of the present group was denied by the U.S. comptroller of the currency in January 1977, saying the investors had not proved the economic viability of the venture and lacked the expertise to make it profitable. The decision was reversed after an investigation during which the investor group made minor administrative changes and showed that the comptroller's office had not considered important and favorable information that had been submitted. Soon after, the first $2 million in stock was sold to approximately 1,200 investors who paid $20 per share. Many of the initial investors bought the minimum of 10 shares for $200.
Of the initial 15 directors, nine were women; now 13 or 21 directors are women. Seven of the nine bank officers are women.
But more important than the sex of the directors, says Womach, is the quality of the management, a point on which local analysts and brokers agree.
One broker noted that while there has been concern that recent changes in the banking laws -- allowing interest-paying checking accounts, for example -- may make it harder for smaller institutions to complete with larger banks, specific concerns about whether Women's National is going to work have been answered. "Their track record has put the doubting Thomases to rest," he noted.
Sosnowik pointed out that the stock, initially offered at $20 a share, is now selling at $22, following some recent fluctuation. "If it was a good buy at $20, it's just as good a buy, if not better now," he said, although dividends have not yet been paid.
Sosnowik added that the advent of interstate banking might make the smaller financial institution even more attractive, as a merger target or, as Womach points out, to provide the personalized touch that the bigger banks often won't. Bank directors are now embarked on a long-term planning strategy to explore these and other options, including additional branches, in the years ahead.
In any case, officers are confident about the future. "It's going to be an interesting time and we're looking forward to it," said Womach. "In a few years, financially, you might not be able to tell the difference between us and a Chemical Bank. Except, of course, for our attitude."