A striking thing about many of the most successful community banks is that they are located either in California or in such states as North Carolina and Virginia. Banks with assets ranging between $131 million and $201 million are no exception.

Of the top 10 in that category, four are in California, two are in North Carolina, and one is in West Virginia. The company that ranks first, High Street Banking Co., is based in Ashland, NC.

Admittedly, High's taking the top spot is a bit of a fluke. The bank is about three-and-a-half years old and an accounting change last year — which boosted its ROE and growth in per-share earnings — was largely responsible for its top-notch performance in 2000.

It is an interesting bank nonetheless because it is headed by a former Wachovia banker and is designed to bring the newest and the best to the Ashville market to fully compete with North Carolina's entrenched giants. J. Edgar McFarland, High Street's CEO, had been with Wachovia 15 years, and in his final position there he headed corporate banking for the state of North Carolina. His two top lieutenants had spent about 10 years each at Wachovia.

"We borrowed from the strengths of Wachovia, as it had been in the past," says McFarland. He thinks as Wachovia and others got bigger, they lost touch with their customers. McFarland plans to keep that touch, while offering the broadest possible range of products.

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