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Santa Barbara Bank Being Wooed

On the Beat


Under the Bus: To the local financial community, Santa Barbara Bank & Trust looks much like a woman getting dolled up to charm a boyfriend who might pop the question.

The I-want-to-marry-you proposal in this case is widely expected from one of the asset-muscled banks said to be circling, and, according to talk on the street, already negotiating to acquire the troubled 49-year-old financial icon.

Barney Brantingham

Hit by multimillion-dollar losses and plummeting stock prices, the bank is still considered a prize acquisition.Here’s what the once-small Santa Barbara Bank & Trust did in the past week to clear its decks of liabilities and troublesome programs and bolster its balance sheet. In the process it also made itself far more attractive to a buyer, although at the expense of its loyal nonunionized retirees:

• It kicked its Medicare-eligible retirees off its medical plan as of February 28, and hiked medical costs for all other retirees. Once present workers and other retirees hit 65 and become Medicare-eligible, they’ll be jettisoned as well. This affects about 115 present retirees, plus spouses, most of them 65 or older.

• Recently laid off 30 more employees statewide after terminating 300 last spring. The bank is also hinting that more heads will roll. “That place is in total chaos,” one retiree told me.

• The bank last week also unloaded, under federal regulators’ orders, its much-criticized Refund Anticipation Loan (RAL) program. No buyer wants to be saddled with an RAL, which has been lambasted by critics for making high-interest “predatory” loans to low-income people wanting to get their tax refunds immediately. The loss was painful because RALs earned $62 million in the first nine months but was sold for a disappointing $10 million.

• Ended, at least for this year, its policy of making a 50-percent match with employees’ 401(k) savings.

• The bank also cleared its books of its deferred compensation plan, by which executives could delay salaries and taxes to the future. They’ll now get lump-sum payoffs, including $818,588 in cash and stock to Clay Larson, vice chairman of the board.

The talk of the town is whether the bank will be acquired by one of the hovering suitors before it celebrates its 50th birthday on March 18. It was opened in 1960 by Louis Lancaster, Reuben Irvin, and Ralph Raddue, who ran it conservatively, concentrating on the local community. But in recent years it’s expanded rapidly — too rapidly, say its critics — and it lost $411 million in the first nine months of 2009. Bad loans, many said to have been made on large, distant housing projects, went sour during the current housing crisis.

SBB&T’s year-end financial report, expected to be released about January 28, will tell much about the bank’s future.

Lopping present and future retirees from the medical plan relieves SBB&T and anyone acquiring it from the substantial long-term liability of health costs for aging retirees. The bank defends itself by calling its retirement medical plan too “generous” and far beyond what most other banks provide.

One bitter, under-65 retiree hit with higher medical costs has also seen her bank stock become virtually worthless. The price was up slightly to $1.27 on Tuesday. Stock dividends were halted, as required by federal regulators because the bank was not paying dividends to the feds on its $180-million TARP (Troubled Asset Relief Program) loan.

And because of the TARP nonpayment, top executives like CEO George Leis would find their golden parachutes under-inflated in case of a sale. Normally, Leis would be entitled to three times his annual salary and bonuses, averaged over three years, apparently amounting to at least an estimated $2.8 million, depending on his 2010 compensation.

But if TARP is not paid off, Leis and other top officials would get no golden parachutes. If a buyer pays off the TARP loan, the most feds might allow would be his annual compensation, which in both 2008 and 2009 was $876,583. In 2007 it was $1.1 million, including a $400,000 bonus.

Tale of Two Banks: Ironically, a bank located across Carrillo Street has weathered the current financial storm far better. Montecito Bank & Trust, owned by Michael Towbes, reported earnings of $7.7 million for the first nine months of 2009.

Scrooge Time: Remember the $30 fruit basket the Teamsters sent to the News-Press newsroom during the holidays, the one that disappeared without ever getting upstairs? Now, News-Press HR boss Yolanda Apodaca claims that sending the fruit amounted to “trespass” against private property. She didn’t explain, however, what happened to the fruit.

Wine Cask Café: Mom used to make a savory dish she called goulash. It was a steaming concoction of noodles, ground beef, veggies, and whatever else was handy. I finally found something very close to it at the revamped (formerly Intermezzo) Wine Cask Bar Café, called pasta bolognese. Sue and I wolfed it down before heading to the nearby Lobero for a Santa Barbara Chamber Orchestra concert, then again Saturday night for CAMA’s Masterseries, featuring Chopin specialist Garrick Ohlsson.

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Barney Brantingham can be reached at barney@independent.com or 805-965-5205. He writes online columns throughout the week and a print column on Thursdays.

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