Area's community banks woo investment industry

12 institutions laud their financial health at annual conference

November 09, 2001|By Gus G. Sentementes | Gus G. Sentementes,SUN STAFF

With the economy sinking into recession, leaders from a dozen community banks in the mid-Atlantic region gathered in Baltimore over the past two days to give the investment industry a glimpse into their companies and laud their financial health.

"It's a very successful conference," said William J. Reuter, president of Susquehanna Bancshares Inc. of Lititz, Pa. "I attended on Monday a Wall Street analyst conference that was well done, but the crowd here is twice as big."

Several bank leaders spoke of the Baltimore-Washington corridor's economic allure, with its strong base of government jobs. Many trumpeted their stocks as good deals for investors.

"We're very fortunate because we have a very strong market," John M. Bond Jr., president and chief executive of Columbia Bancorp, said after the conference yesterday. "We're headquartered in Howard County, which is really the center of the Baltimore-Washington corridor."

Accompanied by a computerized slide show, bank officials outlined growth opportunities in their markets, dissected and displayed their financial performance and talked about how their banks plan to weather the economic downturn.

In just its second year, the Mid-Atlantic 2001 Super-Community Banking Conference doubled the number of banks participating and lured analysts and investment professionals from more than 25 companies.

The event at the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront Hotel had about 120 participants.

Several analysts were generally pleased with the performance of the participating banks, while many bank executives proclaimed their belief that their shares were trading at a bargain price for investors.

The banks that made presentations yesterday included: Columbia Bancorp; Provident Bankshares Corp.; National Penn Bancshares Corp. of Boyertown, Pa.; Susquehanna Bancshares; Sandy Spring Bancorp of Olney; Sun Bancorp Inc. of Selinsgrove, Pa.; FNB Corp. of Christiansburg, Va.; and F&M Bancorp of Frederick.

"I think they're all very healthy, but it's what you'd expect to see after eight years of economic expansion," said Richard D. Weiss, vice president and researcher for Janney Montgomery Scott LLC, a Philadelphia-based full-service brokerage firm. "If you're not in good shape, you're really up for some problems."

Both investment professionals and bank leaders, however, were concerned about the uncertain economic times, and how severe the recession will be. And they were still gauging the long-term fallout on their business from the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11.

"I think everybody's trying to figure out how long and deep our recession will be," said Hunter R. Hollar, president and chief executive of Sandy Spring Bank.

Job layoffs, for example, could mean a decline in the quality of a bank's loan assets because of higher foreclosure and delinquency rates.

Hollar told attendees that Sandy Spring has had "impeccable asset quality."

"Everybody's focusing on asset quality," said Collyn Bement Gilbert, a bank analyst with Ferris, Baker, Watts Inc. in Baltimore. "The next six months will be more challenging from a growth perspective and a greater concern in credit quality."

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