Academic journal article ABA Banking Journal

The Conscience of a Conservative: A Former Newspaperman Forged His Successful Bank Management Strategy in the Furnace of California's Real Estate Troubles

Academic journal article ABA Banking Journal

The Conscience of a Conservative: A Former Newspaperman Forged His Successful Bank Management Strategy in the Furnace of California's Real Estate Troubles

Article excerpt

When the gods wish to test our resolve, they take our greatest strength and make it also our greatest weakness. And so it is with David Payne, who by all available evidence does a splendid job of running Fairfield, Calif.-based Westamerica Bancorp. as chairman and chief executive officer.

Payne is a very conservative businessman, and that conservatism has helped transform $5.2 billion-asset Westamerica into one of the top performing banks in the country, with a 28.83% return on average equity in 2004--good enough to put it in second place on ABA Banking Journal's annual performance ranking, and in the top ten for the fifth year running.

Payne's goal is to provide investors with strong and consistent profitability regardless of how the economy is performing.

"He manages it like it's his own money at risk," says Salomon Smith Barney analyst Michael Diana. "If he owned 100% of the bank I don't think he'd manage it any differently."

And yet some institutional investors wish Payne was a little less cautious and a little more inclined to grow the bank's loan portfolio. Loan volume has actually declined since 2001, which in turn has stunted the bank's revenue and earnings growth.

"It's a fair question," says RBC Capital Markets analyst Joe Moford. "They're in the business of taking risk, and are they being too conservative?" Payne concedes that he has heard these kind of comments before, and it creates the kind of dilemma that can't help but test the strength of his conviction. Conventional wisdom holds that faster revenue growth--even if it came at the expense of reduced profitability and a lower ROE--should result in a higher stock price. And that's something that Payne can't ignore if for no other reason than the fact that his family and he own or control 6.6% of Westamerica's stock, making them its second largest shareholder group.

His inherent conservatism and the question of whether that's a good thing is something Payne has clearly thought about long and hard. Indeed, it's a conviction that was formed in the early 1990s, when the bank was buried under a pile of bad loans after the California real estate market collapsed. That searing experience also served as Payne's introduction to the banking business, and the lessons stuck. "It was out of that that it became clear to me that a conservative approach consistently applied was a safer route with the ups and downs in the economic cycle," he explains.

"Shareholders say, 'Well, you probably would have a higher stock price if you were a greater growth story,'" Payne continues. "Now, we could debate that until you and I are both dead. My problem with it is that the kind of growth necessary to accomplish that means pretty significant risk would be taken. And that would blow my strategy of consistency of financial performance at some point in the economic cycle. That's a tough line to walk."

And yet it's a line that Payne seems committed to walking, come what may. "David knows what he wants and he understands the limits of his decision-making flexibility," says Gary B. I Townsend, a senior vice-president and analyst at Friedman, Billings, Ramsey & Co. In the aftermath of such corporate scandals as Enron, WorldCom and Fannie Mae--where senior managers put their own interests first--Payne is one CEO who seemingly wants to do the right thing by his investors. He is also a man who has the courage of his convictions--a CEO who Townsend says is not afraid to pay an "earnings-per-share penalty" for what he believes.

Small business--getting savvier

Westamerica operates a sprawling network of 91 branches that stretches across 22 counties from Santa Rosa and Sacramento in Northern California to the Central Valley and south almost to Los Angeles. "We do a pretty good job, but we're also in good markets to start with and to a great extent we are successful because of the good markets," Payne says. …

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