95-year-old ‘start-up’

New First Independent corporate strategy gaining momentum, re-branding has begun

Much work has been going on behind the scenes at First Independent Bank, and like an extreme makeover reveal, the company is ready to show off its new look.

The bank has been privately owned by the Firstenburg family since it was purchased by E.W. Firstenburg in 1936. Since then, the bank has grown from one location to 24 and achieved a number of firsts for financial institutions in Clark County, such as the first ATM and shopping mall branch.

First Independent began its initiative five years ago to position the bank for another 70-plus years in the community. In the past year alone, several key executives were put in place, the bank expanded its presence with a loan production office in Portland and full-service branch in Bellevue, and E.W. Firstenburg stepped down from his lifelong chairman position. Prior to that, a number of the bank’s support systems were overhauled and upgraded.

“It was just as big an effort, maybe more, to not only find, hire and retain great people, but to literally redefine every internal department, from auditing, finance, IT and backroom support groups,” said Jeanne Firstenburg, executive vice president and chief operating officer.

Firstenburg said the reinvention and modernization of the bank’s infrastructure is now complete, which she said was essential to executing the strategic plan the bank has developed.

First Independent’s assets are just over $850 million. The bank expects to push $1 billion shortly, possibly in 2006. In 2005, First Independent grew loans 23 percent and deposits 11 percent.

Four pillars
The bank’s strategic plan is built upon four pillars: commercial banking, private banking and trust services, retail banking and mortgage lending.

In 2005, the commercial division of First Independent bank loaned more than $500 million. First Independent is competing directly with the “mega banks” by offering its private banking and trust department services, including advisory, brokerage and investment services. The mortgage lending division produced more than $800 million in loans last year. The retail division will see significant changes in 2006, as the bank’s re-branding will begin at the branch level.

“We are going to be doing a lot of review of the retail division this year and begin revamping, remodeling and rethinking how we do retail,” said Firstenburg.

Massive rebrand
Director of Marketing Stacey Graham was brought on in the fourth quarter of 2005 to head up the re-branding effort, which includes remodeling and adding branches and rethinking everything from signage to the Web site.

Work will begin with an extensive remodel of the Cascade Park location in March.

First Independent expects to assess each branch separately and make changes according to the needs of the area it serves, which may include adding specific services or downsizing the location.

Some branches may consist only of drive-through service while four branches are planned to include financial service centers, said Firstenburg.

Ron Bertolucci joined First Independent as senior vice president and director of retail banking in September 2004. He said training has been a big piece of preparing for the re-branding “to bring everyone in line.”

The bank’s executives have said starting a new bank would have been easier than the task First Independent is undertaking. Particularly as it relates to “reeducating more than 300 employees on what your plan is and how they fit into it,” said Firstenburg.

Including mortgage offices, First Independent has more than 500 employees.

Bertolucci calls First Independent, which was first chartered in 1910, a 95-year-old startup.

“We’ve done something right to have been around for that long,” he said. “And we are evolving into the next 95 years.”

Graham said research showed First Independent ranked highly in customer service, but many people were unaware of specific products and services provided. Changing people’s perception and knowledge of the established company is a major challenge, said Graham.

Re-branding is a part of the company’s efforts to become a banking leader in Southwest Washington. But as evidenced by its activity across the river and in the Puget Sound region, further expansion is also part of the company’s strategy.

Crossing the Columbia
The most natural extension for the bank is to expand into the Portland market, as many of its Clark County customers do business in Portland. However, it’s not as simple as crossing the bridge and opening a branch.

“The Columbia River is wider than it should be when it comes to the banking industry,” said Firstenburg.

Washington allows Oregon banks to do business here without a Washington charter, but the opposite is not true.

First Independent opened its loan production office in Portland more than a year ago, but the bank is not allowed to collect deposits there. The office allows the bank to begin building relationships in the market while assessing opportunities to obtain an Oregon charter, possibly through acquisition.

“The plan includes banking in Portland, and we will always be looking for the right fit,” said Firstenburg.
The Firstenburg family is invested in the year-old Bank of Oswego, which could position the bank for a possible acquisition in the future.

Moving up I-5
The opportunity to open a branch in Bellevue grew from a group of Seattle-area mortgage lenders that had applied for a Washington charter. Instead, the bank partnered with the group. The deal gave First Independent the opportunity to have its first full-service branch in the Seattle/Bellevue market and grow its mortgage business in the region, where it has offices in Puyallup, Federal Way and Bellevue. The group was able to leverage off First Independent’s capital.

“To open that branch and again reach out for new business gives us the ability to sustain ourselves for another 75 years,” said Firstenburg. In 1985, there were 17,000 community bank charters, and now there are only 7,000, she said.

“Staying power comes from having an industry-leading strategic plan that is very versatile,” said Firstenburg. “Expansion is part of that.”

At this time First Independent does not have plans to occupy the whole I-5 corridor, said Firstenburg. And there is still room for the bank to grow in Clark County.

Keep on giving
One thing that is not expected to change is First Independent Bank’s philanthropic activity. Last year the Firstenburg family gave more than $20 million in philanthropic gifts, including donations to Southwest Washington Medical Center, the Firstenburg Community Center and Washington State University Vancouver.

“It is a huge part of what we are about here,” said Firstenburg. “When you look at the gifts, you see a pattern of giving back to really support the infrastructure of the community … where (people) are educated, where their health needs are met.”

First Independent recently opened a philanthropic office in its downtown Vancouver building, where investments and charitable giving will be coordinated on behalf of the Firstenburg family.

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