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Nimble, responsive local banks stay ahead of financial market woes

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The current mortgage crisis and money marketing woes may lead to consumer spending crunching. However two local banks -- Imperial Capital Bank and San Diego National Bank -- want to assure their customers and the public that they are firmly financed and encouraging prospective commercial and personal loan inquirers to seek them out.

"Right now...there is a fear associated with the economy. People are scared and we need to take the fear out," said George Haligowski, chairman and CEO of Imperial Capital Bank.

Headquartered in La Jolla, Imperial Capital Bank has eight branches and loan origination offices all over California as well as the country including Texas, Georgia and New York, Chicago and the Pacific Northwest, employing 270 people.

The bank has assets of up to $1 billion a year, "nearly doubling our peer group," Haligowski boasted.

"Specialization is a good thing when you have a small bank. You can turn opportunities over on a dime," he said.

Services provided for business customers and consumers include checking, interest checking, money market accounts, savings accounts, home, car and equity loans, credit cards and certificates of deposits.

The bank's longtime specialty, however, is the commercial real estate market, investing money into shopping centers, medical buildings and condominiums, explained Haligowski. Although confidentiality rules prohibit Haligowski from naming clients, the bank has been responsible for investing in several hot properties in the Gaslamp District downtown. Currently the bank is investing in a few condominium projects in North Park.

Imperial Capital Bank was formed in 1974 first as Imperial Thrift and Loan Association, a California Industrial Loan Bank. Haligowski came on board as CEO 16 years ago, focused on revamping a troubling bank using his investment banker background. He was given a three-year timeline to make a return investment.

"I said, 'What do I got lose,'" he recalled.

Encouraging the bank to invest in large commercial enterprises, by 1995 it had $500 million in assets, and went public. Headquarters was also moved to San Diego from Los Angeles that same year.

"We wanted to be a big fish in a small pond as opposed to a small fish in a big pond like it was in L.A.," he said.

In 2000 the bank's name was changed to Imperial Capital Bank, and in January 2003, the charter changed to a state chartered, nonmember commercial bank. The bank develops new loans regularly, he added. The bank's investment opportunities have positioned it as owning 2 percent of the commercial real estate market, and the company is aiming for 4 percent.

"We want a chance to become a major player," Haligowski said.

However, the current problems in mortgage and corporate lending have led consumers to be wary of pursuing bank loans. Haligowski wants the federal government to step in and lower the interest rates "in hopes of keeping customer interest up."

The upcoming Christmas season will also be a deciding factor in the future of the economy, he said.

"We need to have people spend their money. When people who actually have the money to spend but won't go out and get the car they want because they would rather hold onto the money -- that is when it will have a huge negative effect on the economy," he added.

To protect the interest of their customers and the bank itself, several fail-safes are in place, including large cash reserves and solid excess capital.

"We do the best we can to watch your money," Haligowski said.

San Diego National Bank echoed the sentiments.

"We are confident in our assets and our investments. Residential lenders in our market are going out of business as we continue to have the ability to make residential loans in the same way we have always done," CEO and President Robert B. Horsman said.

With assets of more than $2.4 billion, the bank continues to garner the "Super Premier" ratings -- the highest rating category -- from the Findley Reports since 1998. The bank celebrated its 25th anniversary last year and for the first time, opened a branch outside San Diego County, in Temecula.

"Many of our customers come from Temecula. The city is home to enough people to sustain a branch," said Kristy Gregg, vice president of marketing.

Headquartered near downtown San Diego, the bank was founded by bankers interested in serving small-business owners. Another branch opened more than 10 years later in Chula Vista in 1995. Two years later San Diego National was purchased by FBOP Corp., and now has 21 branches around San Diego County with plans to open five more by the end of the year.

"We see opportunity to expand within the county and continue to look for the right locations. There is room for more growth here in San Diego, no question about it," Horsman said.

The full-service community bank offers home loans, checking accounts, money marketing accounts, CDs and other traditional services. Banking with a local company has its benefits, Horsman said.

"We are very responsive to loan requests and turn them around quickly because we are local," he said.

The bank's specialty is financing large construction real estate loans. It has been instrumental in funding the new $240 Hilton San Diego Convention Center. The bank also provided loans for the W Hotel, Torrey Pines Lodge remodeling, several downtown high-rise condominium projects, small shopping centers and business centers.

What do it look for in a business partner?

"We look for a track record. We like the borrower to have their own money in the project," Horsman said. "We want to be a partner in the project, not an owner."

The bank prides itself on being an active member of the San Diego community. Many of its employees are members of their local YMCAs, Boys and Girls Clubs and school boards. The bank gives back 3 percent of its net profit, before taxes, to several nonprofit organizations. Last year it donated $3 million to several inner city programs including Star Pal, NTC foundation and the Monarch School.

"We are so fortunate to do business here and we feel that we need to contribute a percentage of our earnings back to the community," Horsman said. "It's good for business and good for San Diego."

Kurland is a San Diego-based freelance writer.

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