One year later – a look back at the Bank of Clark County failure

For Columbia Gem House owner Eric Braunwart, the trouble began a little more than a year ago, in the peaceful sanctuary of his kitchen table on a Saturday morning in January.

"I was reading the paper about what I thought was a bank failure in Clark County the day before, only to realize it was the Bank of Clark County," Braunwart, a longtime BOCC depositor and loan-holder, recalled late last year.

According to Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. statistics, the seizure of BOCC by state and federal regulators in the late hours of Friday, Jan. 16, 2009 was merely one of the first in a string of 140 financial institutions to fail in last year's banking bloodbath.

However, for many of BOCC's large depositors, shareholders and loan-holders throughout Southwest Washington, the bank's collapse was a life-changing event, triggering a wave of vanishing nest eggs, livelihoods and critical operating capital in a community already hit hard by a deepening worldwide recession.

And while the week preceding the bank's failure pointed to troubles ahead, the news of the decade-old savings-and-loan's demise took even BOCC employees like development officer Wayne Clemetson by surprise.

For others, executives privy to high-level discussions with CEO Mike Worthy and the other eight members of BOCC's board of directors, signals of impending financial disaster emerged months before the bank's collapse.

"The greatest place I've ever worked."

On the unseasonably cold evening of Jan. 16, word of what had only a week earlier had been inconceivable – namely, the failure of a once rising star among regional financial institutions, with over $446.5 million in assets – started to circulate among key staff members.

Clemetson, a self-identified "deposit gatherer" for more than three years with the bank, was taking a break from refereeing a basketball game for a local youth sports program when he got the call from BOCC vice president and branch manager Shelley Pierce.

Pierce told Clemetson that the bank had gone into receivership and that he had to come into the office that night to turn in his keys and company credit card. "I was taken back, I was surprised," he told the VBJ last week.

Clemetson arrived at BOCC's Washington Street headquarters downtown around 10:30 that evening, encountering a scene reminiscent of the collapse of investment giant Lehman Brothers only a few months prior – albeit, in miniature form.

Two Vancouver police officers were posted at the bank's brick entrance, while inside officials with the FDIC combed through BOCC's files, according to Clemetson. Greg Jellison, a principal at HDJ Design Group, with offices located across the street from the bank, that night drove past a throng of people braving freezing temperatures out on the sidewalk. "It was obvious there was something going on," he said.

Meanwhile, Clemetson was inside the building, handed over keys that would later be returned to him once FDIC officials realized Clemetson, along with other former staffers, would be needed to assist the transition of BOCC's operations to its purchaser, Umpqua Bank.

After three weeks as a contractor during the switch-over, like many others Clemetson found himself out of a job, left with what he called a "significant" amount of now completely-worthless company stock.

Now a business development manager at Vancouver-based iQ Credit Union, he holds little regret – and even a palpable sense of wistfulness – over his tenure at BOCC. "It was the greatest place I've ever worked," he said. "I'd do it all over again in a heartbeat."

A deal never made, a life-line never offered

While all traces of the once-familiar BOCC nameplate and logo have been erased from the bank's former headquarters at 1200 Washington St., the imprint made by the failed institution on its victims, still remains.

Less than a quarter of the more than $20 million lost by the bank's uninsured depositors has been distributed by the sale of its assets by the FDIC. Scores of individuals and businesses have seen their lines of credit disappear, their existing debt sold to outside investors. Others, with no direct relationship with the failed institution, felt the pain in the form of postponed development deals and an even-tighter credit market locally.

And it may have been a crisis that never had to happen.

According to a source with knowledge of high-level strategic discussions within the bank, an effort was made to convince the bank's board of directors to approve a sale of BOCC as far back as May 2008 – a time when accelerating real estate market declines began to affect the bank's balance sheet.

However, efforts to find an outside buyer culminated only in the week before the troubled bank's collapse, long after mounting losses from the bank's real estate portfolio passed the point of no return.

Former CEO Worthy, now employed at Vancouver-based Atlantic and Pacific Freightways, declined to comment on a possible 2008 deal for the bank.

The aftermath

The past year has been a difficult one for Braunwart and his 32-year-old precious stone business. Soon after the collapse, he watched as his company's BOCC loans, totaling in the "high six-digits," were sold to the highest bidder – in Braunwart's case, to a New York hedge fund that bought his debt for 70 cents on the dollar.

Columbia Gem House laid-off a third of its staff as a direct result of the bank's closure, according to Braunwart, with his company defaulting on loans now held by investors more than 3,000 miles away in an effort "to get them to talk to us."

"I'm a banker right now. I'm not able to run my business," he said.

Meanwhile, much of BOCC's staff have since landed positions at other regional and national financial institutions, such as iQ Credit Union, Umpqua Bank, Columbia Bank, Pacific Continental and Bank of America.

Clemetson still finds time for lunch with former team members, many of whom occupy similar positions at other institutions, located only a few blocks away from their former workplace.

According to Clemetson, there are even plans for a company reunion – perhaps a picnic or barbeque sometime this summer.

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