Adams National Bank has the look of a race horse when the starting gate opens.

Why? In short, Adams, the first and largest federally chartered bank owned and run primarily by women, has been champing at the bit for the past six years - "stuck in time and space," as its chief executive put it, while its future was put on hold.

Now, it's looking for running room.

"We have targeted two possibilities in Maryland and five in the state of Virginia," said Barbara D. Blum, CEO of the $88 million-asset bank in Washington, D.C.

"My time frame is as quick as possible."

Ms. Blum, of course, is talking mergers, and she will, in fact, be talking with several of the chiefs of these target banks as early as this week. The candidates are equal in size to Adams National, or smaller.

Her plan is to beef up the bank to as much as $500 million of assets within the next five years.

What has mired the bank up until just recently was the uncertainty of its ownership, 71% of which was controlled by Citicorp after several of Adams National's major investors defaulted in the late-1980s on a $4.5 million loan from the New York bank.

The stock, whose owners included Ms. Blum and two other Adams National directors, was seized by Citicorp in 1989 as collateral on the bad loan. With Citicorp's intentions for the sizable stake unknown, few potential merger partners would even speak with Adams National.

"You don't want to deal with someone whose owner you ultimately don't know," said Kimberly J. Levine, treasurer of Adams National. "That's troublesome."

All that changed a year ago when an investor group from West Virginia, led by a printing company executive and consisting primarily of women, bought the 71% stake from Citicorp and subsequently made a tender offer for the remaining 29%, at $21 a share.

But there were few takers, as shareholders apparently prefer to wait and see what Ms. Blum and her staff can do with the bank.

She hasn't wasted much time. This past spring the bank nearly doubled its equity, to $12.7 million, with a successful stock offering. The offering, underwritten by Ferris, Baker, Watts Inc., was oversubscribed. On July 12, the bank's stock started trading on Nasdaq for the first time.

"At last we're alive and well and breathing fresh air again," Ms. Blum said. "We're ready to get going."

For 1995, Adams National reported a 1.17% return on assets and a 15.53% return on equity, about average for its peer group but respectable given its clouded situation. It earned $238,000 in the first quarter, almost a 30% jump from the year-earlier period.

The bank also believes that its primary customers - women and minorities - will be providing even more opportunities in the future. About 28% of all U.S. businesses are owned by women today, officials said.

Ms. Blum plans to open at least one new branch in the District and is considering branch purchases in Maryland and Virginia as well. Those two states, along with the District of Columbia, have already opted-in to interstate branching, enabling a bank in the region to run a seamless operation under just one charter.

Ms. Blum also intends to make an aggressive investment in technology for the bank, including the addition of computer banking for consumers on top of its existing service for businesses.

"We want to move ahead of the curve of community banks in this area and offer the same technological services that you can find at the big banks," Ms. Blum said.

Despite the relative stagnation of recent years - the bank did buy around $23 million of deposits and $16 million in loans from failed banks in the early 1990s - Ms. Blum's investors are standing by her with good reason.

While the typical resume of the community bank CEO is stuffed with a long list of civic achievements and awards, Ms. Blum's is a bit different:

Deputy administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency during the Carter administration; recipient of Germany's highest civil award, the Commander's Cross of the Order of Merit; founder of an environmental consulting firm; deputy director of the 1976 Democratic presidential campaign; and owner and operator of a restaurant chain.

And that's just scratching the surface.

She's still active in several regional and national organizations focusing on economic development and social policy, in addition to her duties at the bank.

Until she became Adams National's CEO in 1983, however, that impressive resume did not include banking experience.

"Well, it was really not that hard," she said. "Of course, I had the administrative skills so they were transferable. There's nothing magic about it."

Subscribe Now

Access to authoritative analysis and perspective and our data-driven report series.

14-Day Free Trial

No credit card required. Complete access to articles, breaking news and industry data.