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Byline: Sonia Giordani Daily News Staff Writer

Just five months after pulling together a board of directors and kicking off a regional fund-raising campaign, California Oaks State Bank opens its doors this week with $5.7 million in capital.

The Conejo Valley's newest community bank will fill the main floor of the Firefighter's Foundation Building on Hillcrest Drive in Thousand Oaks, left vacant nearly three years ago when the last of several different bank branches closed following a series of bank mergers.

``There are still a great number of financial institutions left in eastern Ventura County,'' said Anthony Kourounis, the bank's president and chief executive officer. ``But what are missing in this community are the proprietary banks based here, dedicated to serving this community locally.''

The opening of California Oaks is the most recent in a wave of community-based banks trying to win back customers by pledging to deliver personal attention, as well as a full range of banking services.

Their efforts are proving effective in Ventura County.

``Over the last three to four years, the acquisitions-hungry, mammoth banking giants left fewer banks to serve Ventura County. And residents have been feeling they don't have as many options,'' said Barry Rubens, an independent banking analyst with the California Research Corp. in Santa Monica.

``As a result we've been seeing several new banks start up to replace the bank branches formerly there. And they've been doing remarkably well,'' he said.

Recent figures showed community banks like Camarillo Community Bank in Camarillo, Los Robles Bank in Thousand Oaks and First Western Bank in Simi Valley reported strong return on assets above the industry average of about 1 percent, Rubens said.

Kourounis was the manager for Bank of the Oaks for nearly nine years when First Interstate acquired it and made him their regional representative for the Conejo Valley in 1994. When Wells Fargo acquired First Interstate two years later, he decided to take his chance and launch his own community bank.

``By my definition, a community bank tries to provide all types of products to a wide segment of the local community,'' Kourounis said. ``If you take an analogy, I'd liken us to the family practitioners in the medical field who can try to help everyone.''

Assembling a 10-member board of community leaders, including former Thousand Oaks City Council member Robert Lewis and Larry Janss of the city's pioneer Janss family, Kourounis hopes to resurrect the old-fashioned ideals of community banking.

Traditional strengths of community banks include loan decisions made by local managers, more personal attention from tellers, and more awareness of local needs, bankers said.

And established community-based banks are beginning to branch into neighboring communities.

Last October, Oxnard-based American Commercial Bank celebrated the grand opening of its new branch in Camarillo at the former Bank of A. Levy site on Ventura Boulevard. And First Western Bank, which changed its name from Simi Valley Bank last May to appeal to neighboring communities, added branches in Fillmore and Santa Paula to its three Simi Valley and one Moorpark offices.

Tony Palmer, president and chief executive officer for First Western Bank, said the mergers and acquisitions have surely benefited local banks and even helped them branch out into smaller, underserved communities.

``Our bottom line goal is just to serve our local communities. We don't specialize in any niche but that,'' he said.

But Palmer noted that with more than $118 million in assets, competing with some of the larger financial lending companies can be tough.

Big banks have a keener eye on offering solid customer service while also boasting greater assets.

``In the Ventura County area, the branch managers have been allowed a lot of latitude and flexibility in dealing with our local clients,'' said Denis Weber, a vice president and Westlake Village branch manager for City National Bank. ``We've been empowered to do a lot of things to make our customers happy.''

City National Bank, based in Beverly Hills, acquired Ventura County National Bank in March 1996.

Weber said the bank wants to retain the Ventura County National Bank customers by maintaining top customer service. But with $5 billion in assets, it has also sought to capture more of the Conejo Valley's entrepreneurial residents with attractive business loans.

``And we don't make our customers call an 800-number to get service or shovel them off into a black hole,'' Weber said.

For Bank of America, competition is bound to arise between their hundreds of branches and the community banks popping up.

``The general view of commercial banks is that banking's a pretty intensely competitive business. But that's not necessarily a bad thing,'' said Jane Feledy, spokeswoman for Bank of America which has $260 billion in assets and more than 950 branches across California.

``As a large bank we serve a very wide range of customers. The competition keeps us thinking about new products and enhancements we can offer,'' she said. ``Our strength is in our ability to provide a full range of services with a lot of financial backing.''

With many banking headquarters located hundreds of miles away, banking analyst Rubens notes that the new generation of community banks restores choice.

``If you're in the market for a loan, you can keep shopping around until you find something that works for you,'' he said. ``The new banks have to be a good thing for the consumer because they raise the competition and allow for a higher level of expectations.''



American Commercial Bank $131.3 million 8.36 0.85

(based in Ventura)

Camarillo Community Bank $86.6 million 9.48 1.23

Channel Islands Bank $81.5 million 7.56 0.84

(based in Oxnard)

Charter Pacific Bank $87.1 million 7.39 -0.79

(Agoura Hills)

First Western Bank $118.3 million 7.98 1.11

Los Robles Bank $107.8 million 7.451.19

Source: California Research Corp. Figures are as of September 1997


Photo, Box

PHOTO Anthony Kourounis, head of the new California Oaks State Bank, used to be a manager for Bank of the Oaks.

Tina Gerson/Daily News

BOX: Some community banks (see text)
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Article Type:Statistical Data Included
Date:Feb 2, 1998

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