Working in the shadow of more prominent dealmakers, United Bankshares Chairman and Chief Executive Richard M. Adams has quietly amassed a record even the shrewdest trader would be proud to claim.
Over the past three decades, Adams has presided over no fewer than 30 acquisitions, transforming United from a one-branch bank with $100 million in assets into a $14.3 billion-asset regional powerhouse with 129 offices across five states and the District of Columbia.
Adams unveiled his 31st deal Thursday, when United agreed to pay $912 million in stock for the $4.2 billion-asset Cardinal Financial in Tysons, Va. While the acquisition would be United's largest under Adams' leadership, it's noteworthy for other reasons as well.
By helping arrange the sale to United Bankshares of the banking company he has led since October 2001, Cardinal Executive Chairman Bernard H. Clineburg joins what must be one of the most rarefied clubs in the industry: CEOs who have sold two banks to the same buyer.
Eighteen years ago, in April 1998, Clineburg presided over the sale of George Mason Bankshares Inc. in Fairfax, Va., to United for $208.4 million. Both were all-stock deals, a fact that points to the level of trust Clineburg has in Adams.
"I think it's easier" to strike a deal "when there's a foundation of trust and honesty," Clineburg said in an interview Thursday. "We've been together socially and we've been business partners — everything it takes to build a relationship. I know what I'm getting … and it's going to be good."
United goes about its business in an "understated" manner, but that makes it no less effective a merger partner, Clineburg said. "They're quiet, but they work hard and get the job done."
When Adams took over at 29, United was little more than a mom-and-pop operation headquartered in Parkersburg, W.Va. At that time, West Virginia's banking laws were among the most restrictive in the nation, barring state banks from expanding outside West Virginia or from branching within its boundaries.
After the restrictions were set aside in the early 1980s, Adams and United's board set two overarching goals: expand in West Virginia, particularly into the state capital, Charleston, and enter the larger, more affluent Washington, D.C., market.
"The plan was mainly to cover the most critical areas in West Virginia, then expand in Washington and the surrounding area," recalled F.T. "Tom" Graff Jr., a prominent Charleston attorney who served on United's board from 1984 to 2014.
United, which now maintains dual headquarters in Charleston and Washington, has stuck to that blueprint ever since.
It built its West Virginia franchise to the point where it trails only BB&T in deposit market share statewide. In metropolitan Washington, a string of acquisitions has made United the region's largest community bank. The deal for Cardinal, announced late last week, would boost United to about $14.4 billion of assets and $8.5 billion of deposits in the Washington area and Virginia, said Christopher W. Bergstrom, Cardinal's president and CEO.
"United will be the 32nd-largest bank in the U.S.," Bergstrom said in an interview. "It'll be a formidable competitor. … If you can't get excited about that, you're banking with the wrong team."
Before the Cardinal announcement, United's most recent M&A news came June 6, when it completed its $269 million purchase of Bank of Georgetown in Washington.
Many, if not most, of the deals Adams has done have been hotly contested. For instance, United was one of four banks that submitted offers for Bank of Georgetown. It was one of five that bid for the $2.8 billion-asset Virginia Commerce Bancorp in Arlington, which it acquired for $467 million in January 2014.
Given the competitive nature of bank M&A, Adams' ability to connect with the CEOs of potential sellers is at least partly responsible for United's successful track record.
"I've built a relationship with them," Adams said of his deal partners. "I've done that through 31 acquisitions."
Back in 1998, after United acquired the $21 million-asset BankFirst in McLean Va., Adams made sure to leverage his relationship with that company's CEO to gain an introduction to Clineburg and other Virginia bankers.
The BankFirst chief "asked me when I wanted to build branches," Adams recalled. "I told him, 'If you want to help us add branches, introduce me to the CEOs of all these banks.' That's how I got to know Bernard."
Graff likened Adams to a master of M&A's social side.
"He's got a nice personality," said Graff, who remains a director emeritus at United. "He's a genuinely nice person to be around."
It helps, too, that Adams, a former chairman of the West Virginia Bankers Association and an unabashed industry booster, sincerely likes his fellow bankers. "There's been a lot of bad publicity about bankers, but I don't know of any group that does more for their communities," he said.
Yet as much as he might appreciate the encomiums from board colleagues and other bankers, Adams rejects the suggestion banks may have chosen to partner with United because of his temperament.
Things always come down to the bottom line, he said.
"United has been successful because of consistent, high-performance banking, increased earnings and strong capital," Adams said. When banks decide to sell, "they're interested in the stock they're going to get, not any kind of sales job I can do on a CEO."
Since the end of the financial crisis, United has registered substantial increases in capital, net income and tangible book value per share. In its 2015 annual report, the company boasted that a $100,000 investment made way back at the start of Adams' tenure would have grown to $11.3 million at Dec. 31, 2015.
Adams is even more proud of United's dividend record. It has increased its annual payout, which totaled $1.29 in 2015, for 42 consecutive years.
Cardinal's sale to United is expected to close in mid-2017. When it does, Clineburg will join United's board.
"I think he'll be a really good director," Graff said. "He knows northern Virginia and Washington. He's been an extremely successful businessperson in his own right."
Graff added that Clineburg passed out cigars after the sale of George Mason Bankshares was completed. "I guess we're back in the cigar business," he said.