Business Bank Believes Personal Touch May Be Its Greatest Asset

Times Staff Writer

The first of two independent banks targeting local businesses has opened its doors in Ventura County, and the second plans its launch within the next two months.

County Commerce Bank, which opened Feb. 18, already has several hundred accounts with deposits totaling more than $2 million, said Joseph D. Kreutz, president and chief executive.

"We have more than $7 million in loans in the pipeline in the first four days. That's pretty amazing," Kreutz said. "We haven't even contacted all the people that we hope will be banking with us. So far, it's just been word of mouth."

The bank is at 3260 Telegraph Road in Ventura, in a building that was most recently the site of Yamaguchi spa.

The bank began with $7.7 million in assets, including $1.75 million invested by Kreutz.

Kreutz began his banking career with Santa Paula Savings and Loan in 1978, owned a mortgage brokerage firm for nearly 10 years and became president and chief executive of Bank of Ventura in 1996.

He ran that bank until First Bank & Trust Co. of St. Louis bought it for about $15 million in August 2000.

After more than two decades in banking, the 50-year-old Kreutz took some time off to spend with his wife and sons, now 13 and 17.

But he decided to get back into the business after many of the county's smaller, independent banks -- there were nearly a dozen 10 years ago -- were purchased by out-of-county interests.

"There is a demand for community banks, and there are few left," he said. "We're filling a niche that's not unknown. It's not all that risky."

The second new financial institution, Ventura County Business Bank, should open by early April, said President Gerald J. Lukiewski.

Lukiewski, president of American Commercial Bank until its sale to Midstate Bank for $63.7 million in September 2001, said the business bank will have branches in Oxnard and in the Westlake portion of Thousand Oaks. The business bank will begin with $11 million in investor capital.

"We are two Davids going against the Goliaths," said Lukiewski, adding that he has a good relationship with Kreutz, his former competitor. "What separates us is that he will be focusing in the city of Ventura. We're going to be more county-focused."

The executives said there should be no shortage of customers tired of dealing with large regional and national financial institutions. "One thing I'm certain of is there is plenty of business to go around," Kreutz said. "There are many small businesses that want that personal touch, that want to deal with local people with local decision-making."

Low interest rates make it more difficult to run a bank profitably, so bank regulators demand more investor capital and experienced management before approving new banks, said Gary S. Findley, editor of the Findley Reports, which rates the performance of banks in six Western states.

He predicts each bank will do well, despite an uncertain national economy.

"They've both been CEOs of successful institutions," Findley said. "I have a lot of confidence in their ability to run a banking institution in what I would call a difficult economic environment."

The openings come about four years after the last independent bank opened in Ventura County, Santa Paula-based Santa Clara Valley Bank.

"I tell my customers, you've got to find a bank that fits your needs," said Michael D. Hause, president of Santa Clara Valley Bank. "If you're just a regular business in Ventura County, you're not going to go to an international bank. It's just not the right fit. We know the local economy and local business, and our products are tailor-made for those businesses."

The bank, which has a second branch in Fillmore, has grown to $43 million in assets with about 2,500 customers, Hause said.

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