SAN RAFAEL, Calif. -- When David L. Payne took charge of Westamerica Bancorp, two years ago, he widely regarded as a spoiled rich kid who got the job only because his family was a major shareholder. He was 33 and had no previous banking experience.

The gibes grew harsher after Mr. Payne persuaded the board to freeze construction lending. Rivals, who were booking big profits on commercial real estate loans, laughed at Mr. Payne's skittishness.

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