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Customers, Officials Lament Plans for Merger : History: Tradition runs deep in Bank of A. Levy, which started 112 years ago and financed much of the county’s original growth.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It began more than a century of business in what is now Port Hueneme, when a French immigrant with an eye toward a more profitable crop began offering loans to local farmers to encourage them to switch from barley to lima beans.

Today, Bank of A. Levy, which financed much of the county’s original growth, is the largest locally owned bank in Ventura County. Tradition runs deep: The bank’s president is the great-grandson of that man who took a liking to lima beans.

But Bank of A. Levy’s trademark green signs, emblazoned with founder Achille Levy’s signature, will soon be replaced by the First Interstate logo.

Tuesday’s announcement that the 112-year-old bank was being sold to corporate giant First Interstate Bancorp prompted strong expressions of regret from customers and local officials as they reminisced about the era when both the bank and the county were new.

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“They were born with the city,” Oxnard Mayor Manuel Lopez said. “And they helped the city develop.”

“Things keep consolidating and getting bigger and bigger,” he added. “I guess it follows a trend. We just lost the Oxnard Press-Courier. We’re seeing an evolution of our agencies and businesses.”

Customer Barbara Dick, a liquor store clerk from Oxnard who has banked with A. Levy for more than 40 years, said she was unhappy to hear that her friendly hometown bank had been sold to First Interstate, which has more than 1,000 offices across the West.

“I don’t like that,” Dick said. “So many times (when) you come to the Bank of A. Levy, they call you by name. I just hate to see the smaller businesses taken over by big corporations.”

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For some Ventura County residents, however, the sale was of little concern. “There seem to be a lot of changes at other banks and nothing’s happened,” said Lyle Johnson, emerging from the Bank of A. Levy branch in Ventura.

“As long as we get the same kind of service, it’s OK with me,” the retired telephone company supervisor said.

For others, the realization that the number of locally owned banks is dwindling--rapidly being replaced with banks that cross state lines as nimbly as fast-food restaurants--is just plain depressing.

“There is going to be an empty void in our community and in the hearts of many residents,” said Don Facciano, Oxnard Chamber of Commerce executive director. “They have been not only a staunch supporter of the Chamber of Commerce, but also a staunch supporter of our whole community, particularly in the charitable field.”

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In the last four years, Bank of A. Levy’s corporate and employee donations to United Way fund drives have averaged $75,000 each year.

“Obviously, the Bank of A. Levy has been an outstanding supporter,” said Thomas Rummell, executive director of the Ventura United Way chapter. “I would hope that there would be continued support for our local community from First Interstate.”

A charitable foundation established by the bank--the Achille Levy foundation--will close with it, said bank President Marshall Milligan, great-grandson of Achille Levy.

“We will pass on our responsibilities to the community to First Interstate,” Milligan said. “They know it is good business for them to contribute to the community.”

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The bank’s corporate headquarters on Vista Del Mar Drive in Ventura will probably be sold, Milligan said.

“I very much doubt that First Interstate will need it,” he said.

The descendants of Achille Levy share mixed emotions about the sale, Milligan said.

Although part of the agreement with First Interstate includes a clause prohibiting him from working in banking in Ventura or Santa Barbara counties, he said he has no plans to move from the county, nor any to retire.

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“It’s way too early,” he said. “I’m only 43.”

* MAIN STORY: A1


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