An Oregon community bank has squelched rumors it is for sale by hiring Robert D. Sznewajs, a former vice chairman at U.S. Bancorp, to lead it into the next century.
After a six-month search, Lake Oswego-based West Coast Bancorp last week named Mr. Sznewajs president and chief executive officer. A well-known retail banker who has held top posts at several large banking companies, Mr. Sznewajs fills the post vacated last summer when Victor L. Bartruff abruptly resigned.
West Coast, Oregon's largest community banking company, with $1.3 billion of assets, has reportedly been on the block since it missed third-quarter earnings estimates, and the rumors only intensified when the search for a CEO dragged on into the winter.
"There was a theory out there that if they didn't have someone in place by January, they would be sold," said Beth Ruckwardt, an analyst at Pacific Crest Securities Inc. in Portland, Ore. "Getting someone in there with his qualifications shows that they are ready to move forward."
Mr. Sznewajs, 53, arrives at West Coast with an impressive resume. Once viewed as a possible successor to U.S. Bancorp CEO John F. Grundhofer, Mr. Sznewajs was in charge of retail operations at the $77 billion-asset, Minneapolis-based company. He resigned in July.
He also once headed the credit card subsidiary of the former BankAmerica Corp. and is a former manager of retail banking at Valley National Bank in Phoenix, which was eventually acquired by Bank One Corp.
"Mr. Sznewajs joins West Coast with a proven record of improving bottom-line results and increasing shareholder value," said West Coast chairman Gary D. Putnam. "Our ability to attract a candidate with [his] experience says a great deal about our company's potential and its future."
Mr. Sznewajs, who takes the helm today, was unavailable to comment. In a press release, he said he is eager to return to the Pacific Northwest, where U.S. Bancorp was headquartered before its merger with First Bank System Inc. West Coast is well-positioned to take advantage of growth in the region, he said.
"West Coast is well-known in the marketplace for its commitment to serving its small-business and consumer customers," he said. "The bank's positioning along the Interstate 5 corridor and its service commitment provide great opportunity for growth in the coming year."
West Coast has expressed interest in becoming a larger regional player, but this ambition has been stymied somewhat by a time-consuming restructuring and plummeting stock price. The company recently consolidated four of its bank charters under one name and folded four loan production offices into one. Yet despite the estimated cost savings - about 75 jobs were lost - West Coast's stock has dropped more than 30% from its 52-week high of $20 a share. It was trading at $13.625 late Thursday.
Pending the stock price's recovery, observers said they expect West Coast to jump back in the acquisition game under Mr. Sznewajs. Robert J. Rogowski, a principal at Columbia Financial Advisors Inc. in Seattle, said West Coast's former CEO, Mr. Bartruff, was never comfortable in the job after the restructuring because he had promised that acquired banks would retain their independence.
Mr. Sznewajs, he said, "doesn't have that kind of baggage. He brings a big-bank perspective, which is what that organization needs to manage its operations."
His presence could also go a long way toward bringing in new loan business, which has been flat in recent months. As Mr. Rogowski sees it, Mr. Sznewajs already has a Rolodex filled with business associates' names from the days when he was based in Portland. Those are contacts, he said, that may migrate over to West Coast.