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Distinctly different

Luther Burbank Savings thrives on a business model that has it pay a little more, charge a little less and run a lean operation

Vic Trione and John Biggs at the new Luther Burbank Savings at B and Third Streets on Thursday, December 6, 2012.

(Jeff Kan Lee/ The Press Democrat)
Published: Sunday, December 9, 2012 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, December 9, 2012 at 8:32 a.m.

When passing by Luther Burbank Savings' new headquarters in downtown Santa Rosa, don't bother looking for the ATM kiosk.

It doesn't have one.

The rectangular building with the cherry-colored wood exterior will open for business Monday, the latest sign of growth at Sonoma County's largest locally based financial company.

Luther Burbank's expansion during the past three decades has come by taking a road less traveled. Seventy percent of its savings reside in certificates of deposit, a much higher rate than typical banks or credit unions. And for many years its loan business has concentrated on multi-family housing projects, which performed better than other real estate sectors during the housing market meltdown.

“We're not all things to all people,” said Vic Trione, chairman of the board and one of the bank's three shareholders. “We don't have credit cards or car loans.”

Or ATMs. Instead, the company issues debit cards and rebates the fees that its depositors are charged from other banks' cash machines around the world.

“It's really much more efficient for us to just use everyone else's ATMs,” said John Biggs, Luther Burbank's president and CEO.

For its first 29 years, Luther Burbank's Santa Rosa branch sat in a nondescript building near Fourth and E streets. In time, the company expanded into two adjacent offices and eventually added branch offices elsewhere in the Bay Area and Southern California.

On Monday, its will open its new flagship branch at Third and B streets, joining Exchange Bank, Wells Fargo, Bank of America and five other banks that sit within a block of Old Courthouse Square, the center of downtown.

“Our signage will be the first thing people see when they come into the downtown,” said Biggs.

The company has $3.7 billion in assets. The only larger local financial institution is the $6 billion American AgCredit, a Santa Rosa cooperative that is part of the nation's farm credit system.

After its first three months of operation in 1983, Luther Burbank became profitable and never posted another losing quarter. It recorded profits through the Great Recession and beyond, and for the first nine months of the year reported net income of $52 million. That amount, unlike the profit figures reported for many banks, is before taxes.

The company has succeeded with a “distinctly different business model,” said Fred Ptucha, who tracks local community banks and is an adviser at Financial West Group in Santa Rosa. Its strategy includes offering slightly higher interest rates on CDs and slightly lower rates for large real estate borrowers.

“We're going to pay a little more, charge a little less and run a very lean machine,” Ptucha said of the lender's thinking.

Luther Burbank's approach shows up in its physical locations. It has just eight branches, four in the Bay Area and four in Southern California.

Compare that to the county's other two big local banking institutions. Redwood Credit Union has 18 branches and $2.1 billion in assets. Exchange Bank has 19 branches and $1.6 billion in assets.

Those two entities take a different approach, offering a broad array of services to both individuals and businesses. Local banking executives said Burbank has a reputation for success through specialization.

“When you do a couple of things and you do them very well, you can be very efficient,” said Brett Martinez, president and CEO of Redwood Credit Union.

Luther Burbank executives said they have sought to change the company's image. They noted they offer typical services like free checking and they are working to offer the latest in mobile banking.

But the company also has many clients with accounts that exceed the federal insurance limit of $250,000, said Trione, adding that such deposits were made based on “the strength of the bank and the reputation.”

The company is owned by brothers Vic and Mark Trione, the sons of philanthropist and retired financier Henry Trione, and George Mancini, the company's first president.

It took 17 years for Luther Burbank to reach $1 billion in assets, a milestone it achieved in 2000, but its growth has accelerated over the last decade, even as the economy slowed. It hit $2 billion in 2006, $3 billion in 2008 and $3.5 billion in 2009.

Two decisions helped the company when the mortgage meltdown occurred. First was the expansion of loans into areas where real estate didn't suffer as much as in Sonoma County, officials said. Second was its focus on apartment lending, which performed better than single-family and commercial loans in the recession.

“That really enabled them to weather the storm better than any other institution I can think of,” said Ptucha.

Despite successes, the company found itself sued this year by the U.S. Justice Department, which accused the lender of discriminating against minority borrowers.

The Justice Department stated that only 5.8 percent of Luther Burbank's single-family residential mortgages in the Los Angeles area from 2006 through 2010 were issued to African-American and Latino borrowers, compared to 31.8 percent by comparable prime lenders. The bank's residential loan program for those years was limited to mortgages above $400,000, and very few African-American and Latino borrowers could qualify for such loans.

Luther Burbank settled the lawsuit in September, agreeing to spend $2 million on initiatives to increase lending in minority neighborhoods in California.

The company still denies the allegations, Biggs said, but “it's just not worth going to court with the federal government.”

This week, it debuts its new headquarters building, which has risen on the downtown Santa Rosa corner lot that housed the old Traverso's deli for decades. Biggs declined to state the building's cost but said owning the property would prove no more expensive than operating its other branches, all of which are leased.

The two-story, 7,885-square-foot building has drawn lots of attention, largely for the reddish-color wood veneer panels that cover the exterior and are held in place without visible fasteners.

“I've never had so much feedback in my life,” said architect Don Tomasi, a senior principal of TLCD Architecture in Santa Rosa.

The branch, built by Wright Contracting of Santa Rosa, employs granite stones from San Francisco's Union Square to mark its parking lot spaces.

Its interior features 21 art glass panels created by Santa Rosa artist Ellen Blakeley. The panels, which will be visible at night to passersby, display hundreds of encased leaves, many gathered from the nearby Luther Burbank Home and Gardens.

For Vic Trione, the building speaks to the company's ties to Santa Rosa.

“It's our home base and it's where we started and where we built our reputation,” he said. “It will continue to be the focal point of our endeavors.”

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