This might not seem like the most opportune time to open a de novo. But Kirk Dowdell, the CEO of Golden Pacific Bancorp, isn't planning to open just one bank, he envisions a whole fleet of community banks scattered throughout California. The first bank, Golden Pacific Bank, opens this month in downtown Sacramento.

Dowdell is certainly going against the grain, particularly in California. According to the California Department of Financial Institutions, in 2008 there have been five state chartered banks approved for opening, down from 18 in 2007.

Yet Dowdell argues the timing is good. "We have fresh capital, we don't have problem loans, we don't have Freddie and Fannie preferred stock; so that fresh capital gives our institution the opportunity to help our community at a time when it's tough to get loans approved," he says. "I actually think that a de novo that has the strong talent pool that we have, that's focused on meeting the needs of its communities, it couldn't be a better time to start a bank."

Sacramento may just be the perfect city to start a bank, as well. According to Dowdell, banking business has more than doubled in the city since 1997 and there is a dearth of homegrown banks. This is where Dowdell's experience comes into play. Prior to signing on with Golden Pacific he was the president and CEO of then-Northern California-based Western Sierra National Bank and was the evp and chief banking officer of its holding company, Western Sierra Bancorp, which was purchased in 2006 by Portland, OR-based Umpqua Holdings.

In fact, 2006 and '07 saw a flurry of bank deals in Northern California. Wells Fargo captured Greater Bay Bancorp and Placer Sierra Bancshares, Wachovia purchased the now infamous Golden West Financial as well as World Savings Bank, and Umpqua purchased North Bay Bancorp.

This consolidation by out-of-state banks (and now national bank Wells Fargo) is a problem that Golden Pacific hopes to address, says Dowdell, whose family has lived in the Sacramento region for five generations. "If you are a consumer or you are a small business operating in Sacramento, your choices have been severely reduced over the last two years," he says. "Here we have the sixth largest economy in the world, yet California has, in essence, lost its banking leadership. ...Our objective with our holding company is to repopulate the state with strong, clean, well-run community banks."

Joining Dowdell on the management team will be Roy Malone, president; Carol Corsetti, chief credit officer; Krista Snelling, chief financial officer; Harry Gunsallus, chief information officer; and Colleen Mahaffey, treasury solutions officer. Golden Pacific Bancorp will start with $35 million in capital, of which $20 million will be streamed down to Golden Pacific Bank.

But it's going to take more than fresh capital to succeed, says William Haraf, commissioner of the California DFI. "Looking at the recently chartered banks that the department has licensed, they're underperforming their expectations and struggling in a difficult market, as you can imagine," Haraf says. "There are possibilities for a bank to do well. ...Certainly the advantages of a clean balance sheet are substantial, but much depends on the quality of the management team and their understanding of the local market."

There is a three-prong strategy to grow the holding company: bank acquisition, branch acquisition and partnering with like-minded community bankers. The first two are self-explanatory. The third will involve helping others start a bank by offering capital, as well as supporting the de novo with Golden Pacific's technology platform, accounting platform, cash management products and other services.

"We're not about going in and acquiring banks just so that we can be at a certain asset size," Dowdell says. "There's tremendous goodwill in a brand and if a financial institution has a solid reputation in their community, we don't want to rip that fabric out of the community. I think that's occurred too many times and there's too many losers in that scenario."

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