First Independent folds into Sterling

Bank reopens under new owner Thursday; transition will continue through July

By Gordon Oliver, Columbian Business Editor

Published:

 

Sterling Financial Corp., parent of Sterling Bank (new name effective March 5)

FOUNDED: 1983.

HEADQUARTERS: Spokane.

ASSETS (12/31/11): $9.19 billion.

EARNINGS, 2011: $39.1 million.

BRANCHES o: 177 in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and California; one each in Clark and Skamania counties.

EMPLOYEES o: About 2,500.

o Before acquisition of First independent Bank, effective Feb. 29.

First Independent Financial Group, parent of First Independent Bank

FOUNDED: 1910 (as Ridgefield State Bank) .

HEADQUARTERS: Vancouver.

ASSETS (as of 12/31/11): $780 million.

EARNINGS, 2011: $10.3 MILLION.

BRANCHES o: 14 in Clark and Skamania counties; two offices in Oregon.

EMPLOYEES o: 243.

o At time of Sterling's acquisition

Sterling Financial Corp., parent of Sterling Bank (new name effective March 5)

FOUNDED: 1983.

HEADQUARTERS: Spokane.

ASSETS (12/31/11): $9.19 billion.

EARNINGS, 2011: $39.1 million.

BRANCHES o: 177 in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and California; one each in Clark and Skamania counties.

EMPLOYEES o: About 2,500.

o Before acquisition of First independent Bank, effective Feb. 29.

First Independent Financial Group, parent of First Independent Bank

FOUNDED: 1910 (as Ridgefield State Bank) .

HEADQUARTERS: Vancouver.

ASSETS (as of 12/31/11): $780 million.

EARNINGS, 2011: $10.3 MILLION.

BRANCHES o: 14 in Clark and Skamania counties; two offices in Oregon.

EMPLOYEES o: 243.

o At time of Sterling’s acquisition

Banking doesn’t get any more personal than at First Independent Bank’s tiny Touchmark at Fairway Village branch, open just two hours a day in east Vancouver.

There’s no sign outside to attract customers and no automatic teller machine — just Karen Meisner, a personal banker who has achieved a sort of celebrity status among her mostly affluent senior citizen customers.

“It is just like your hometown bank,” said Maxine Bash, 82, who lives in Touchmark with her husband, Dan, 83.

The branch, which opened in 2003 just after Vancouver-based First Independent Bank founder E.W. Firstenburg moved into the building, closed at noon Wednesday for the last time as First Independent. On Thursday, it reopens as a branch of Sterling Bank, marking the completion of Spokane-based Sterling Financial Corp.’s purchase of First Independent. It becomes one of 14 Southwest Washington branches that are quietly folding into Sterling as part of its acquisition of First Independent’s core banking operations, marking an end to one of the nation’s last family-owned banks.

More than two dozen employees are being laid off, retiring, or going to work for the Firstenburg family, and other job cuts are likely.

The change will go largely unnoticed for weeks or months by customers, as Sterling eases its way into a transition that will continue through July. Because Sterling Savings Bank is shortening its name, effective Monday, to Sterling Bank and creating new signs and logos, even the First Independent signs will remain untouched for now.

“The ideal scenario is that customers would expect the exact service they get from First Independent,” said Marty Dickinson, a Sterling corporate communications executive. “In getting to know First Independent, it’s really been quite interesting how similar the two entities are and how well they jell together.”

Still, the moment is significant in the financial and philanthropic history of Southwest Washington. First Independent traces its roots to Ridgefield State Bank, founded in 1910. E.W. Firstenburg started working for that bank in 1936. By 1950, the former school teacher had purchased the bank that became the foundation for First Independent Bank, which, at its peak, expanded to 24 branches. Firstenburg left a legacy of contributions for projects including a Vancouver community center, Southwest Washington Medical Center (now PeaceHealth), Washington State University Vancouver, and numerous nonprofits.

The Waterford branch and two other limited-hour branches operating in senior housing centers are examples of First Independent’s personalized and localized approach to banking. When E.W. and his wife, Mary Firstenburg, moved into the building then named Waterford at Fairway Village in 2003, Sterling was providing banking services. Long-time residents describe Sterling’s operations at that time as a bank branch; Dickinson says Sterling never operated a “chartered depository branch” there, but a Sterling banker would hold “office hours” in the building for residents.

Either way, the center’s management wanted a branch in the building and E.W. Firstenburg, who at the time was still chairman of the bank’s board, wanted a convenient place to work and remain close to his ailing wife, said Stacey Graham, a First Independent executive vice-president. First Independent took over the small storefront, installed desks for Firstenburg and Meisner, and began offering unmatched personal service. The branch now has about $3.9 million in deposits, and Meisner estimates that it serves about 100 customers, nearly all from the Touchmark building and nearby cottages.

Some of those customers started worrying in November, when Sterling announced its purchase of First Independent. The building’s resident council wrote to Sterling seeking a promise to keep the branch open. The council got no response, and Dickinson says Sterling hasn’t been able to locate that letter. But Sterling officials have said they intend to retain all First Independent branches, and Meisner has reassured residents that the branch will remain under the Sterling banner.

But while the residents love their branch, they show even more emotion for Meisner. “Some people’s records are so fouled up,” says Bill Mallory, 86, who lives at Touchmark with his wife, Rosaline. “Karen takes so much time to help. She has so much patience.”

Resident Maurice Schwartz, a retired chief analyst for the Federal Reserve, moved to Clark County with his wife, Pearl, to care for an ailing daughter and opened his First Independent account in 2008. As a former financial analyst, he says he can weigh the pros and cons that Sterling’s chief executive officer might consider in choosing whether to maintain such a small branch.

“From a purely bottom-line point of view, I think it’s a toss-up,” he concedes. “As CEO of Sterling Bank, I would keep it open as a gesture of good will.”

He is more certain about what E.W. Firstenburg, who he came to know by his first name of Ed, would have wanted.

“I think Ed would want to keep it running,” said Schwartz, 93. “If he would have thought of it, he probably would have put it in his will.”