Thursday, March 10, 2011

Banking on the community

The column originally ran in Capital Business, WaPo's new local business weekly:

By Dan Beyers
Monday, March 7, 2011; 15 

Among community banks in the region, one in particular has seemed to shrug off the economic turbulence of recent years: Eagle Bancorp.

Where others reined in their ambitions, the Bethesda bank has been busy making loans, building its portfolio and racking up one record-breaking quarter after another. That kind of performance defies the current narrative on the financial industry, where supposedly the world is adjusting to the new normal.

Chairman, chief executive and president Ronald D. Paul claims the bank was just in the right place at the right time, small enough to be nimble when the downturn set in and big enough to make the sort of loans that keep law firms, medical practices, restaurants and other local businesses up and running.

I tend to be skeptical of such Goldilocks analogies, but it is hard to argue with the bank's recent run of success. The loans are performing well and institutional investors have shown a healthy appetite for EagleBank's shares. The bank, with roots in Maryland and the District, recently opened its first branch in Northern Virginia and plans several more.

I heard all about EagleBank's progress last week when Paul and Vice Chairman Robert P. Pincus invited me to a meeting of the community bank's advisory board, a group of local business leaders who serve as ambassadors to the growing bank.

One member of the panel asked Paul and Pincus whether they were worried their success might prompt a response from the larger banks.

Indeed, Pincus said, the bigger banks tend to be "kind of paralyzed" after any recessionary cycle.
"But they are going to come back with a vengeance," likely by offering better rates, he said.

EagleBank's strategy is to take advantage of the lull to ply its customers with as many products as possible, whether insurance, investments, mortgage loans or what have you, "so it is harder to leave."

"We call it stickiness," Pincus said.

And who would help the bank sell those products? Around the table sat the owner of a limousine company, a printer, a commercial real estate broker, lawyers, the leader of a nonprofit, the owner of a concierge service -- all business people who come into contact with many more business people every day, and all incentivized to make referrals.

Then it dawned on me: To be a successful community bank, it's best to tap the resources of the community.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Dead dredge

ExploreHoward reports the company dredging Lake Elkhorn is packing up and going home as a legal dispute continues:

Workers for Mobile Dredging and Pumping of Chester Pa. this week began vacating the work site at the 37-acre lake instead of resuming the work after a winter hiatus. Columbia Association board chairwoman Cynthia Coyle confirmed that CA did not extend an expired contract with Mobile.

"The main thing everybody needs to understand is the lake is not finished," she said, adding that CA is committed to completing the work. The firm, which got the $5.2 million contract in September 2009, had not finished when the contract expired in January.

Mobile Dredging filed a $1 million lawsuit against CA in November in Howard County Circuit Court for breach of contract, claiming the association had failed to pay for work performed The company argued that CA had not done surveys of the sediment before work began and could not therefore measure how much was removed. The CA board had authorized spending $1.2 million more on the job in August, claiming that heavy storms in recent years had left much more mud to be removed than estimated.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Signs of the times

The HoCo Council has approved new rules for signs downtown, allowing, for instance, "digital displays." 

Here's a summary from the Sun:

The council unanimously approved 18 amendments, plus numerous amendments to the amendments, including creation of the term "digital displays" rather than "video boards," which was the original name for electronic signs. The rules regulate the size, placement, illumination, timing and virtually every other aspect of every type of sign imaginable. The bill uses terms like "harmonic urban streetscape" to describe a plan that would make signs "an integral part of an overall development plan."

While many residents and visitors feel the lack of signs has made locating places in Columbia far too difficult, others feel the restrictions have preserved a more pleasant appearance.

Developer Howard Hughes Corp., Columbia's master developer, wants the freedom to be innovative with a rapidly changing electronic technology, while residents and some council members fear the visual clutter they've seen for years along U.S. 40 and U.S. 1 leaching into Columbia.

The Town Center Village Board, the homeowners' group that covers the downtown area, wrote to the council Friday that while the board opposed having video boards in downtown in testimony delivered December 20, the members now feel proposed amendments make the idea "more egregious."

"Ironically, new videos that are particularly attractive could be the worst distracters" for pedestrians as well as motorists, the board's letter said.

But council Chairman Calvin Ball, an east Columbia Democrat, said the members spent "an inordinate amount of hours" on the bill. "It is in much, much better shape than when it came to us," he said.

The electronic signs drew the most comment and criticism from the public, and several members praised the five pages of specific amendments controlling digital displays as compared with the original bill, which merely said that video boards are allowed in downtown.

"This five pages of criteria is the result of all of us spending more hours than we would like admit," working on it, said Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat. She offered amendments banning inflated signs in downtown, especially the "flappy guy"-style signs such as the one waving at motorists Saturday in front of the Firestone Tire store on Little Patuxent Parkway.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Ulman picks new economic development chief

From HoCo pr:

 ELLICOTT CITY, MD — Howard County Executive Ken Ulman announced today that Laura Neuman has been selected as the County’s new Director and CEO of the Economic Development Authority.

 “I am thrilled that Laura has accepted our offer and am extremely pleased that the EDA Board agreed that Laura’s track record and experience as a technology entrepreneur is just what this County and this region needs,” said Executive Ulman. “Laura’s involvement in so many levels of business development, from entry level positions at T. Rowe Price all the way to CEO of a company that was based in Howard County before it was sold for $230 million, offers a glimpse into the drive and passion that make her the ideal leader of the Economic Development Authority.”

 EDA Board Chair Peter J. Rogers, Jr., said, “Ms. Neuman stood out from a field of more than 70 applicants, and fulfilled Executive Ulman’s chief criteria for a new director for the county’s economic development efforts. Laura is a visionary leader with deep roots in the private sector. She is someone who can speak the language of the entrepreneurial community that will help create Howard County’s future.”

 Highlights of Ms. Neuman’s professional career include:

· Entrepreneur in Residence at University of Maryland
· Director of the Chesapeake Innovation Center
· CEO of Matrics Inc.
· Vice-President of Business Development and Sales, CAIS Internet

“This is an extremely exciting opportunity,” said Ms. Neuman. “Howard County has so many things going for it, and economic development is at the top of that list. With Fort Meade, DISA and Cyber-Command all in our backyard, the innovation and entrepreneurial opportunities are endless. When Executive Ulman and I spoke, it was clear we have a similar vision on how the Economic Development Authority can solidify Howard County’s position as the premier business location in Maryland.”

 Ms. Neuman is a Maryland native who holds a Masters in Business Administration from Loyola University and she has completed the Executive Program at Stanford Business School. Laura has received numerous awards and recognitions, including being named “Most Influential Marylander” and being selected one of The Daily Record’s “Maryland’s Top 100 Women.”

 As directed by the County Code, County Executive Ulman delivered his nomination of Ms. Neuman to the EDA Board, and then the Board interviewed the candidate and voted on the Executive’s selection. Ms. Neuman was chosen after an extensive, three-month nationwide search.