NEWS- Albemarle First: Gone, healthy profits remain


The community bank started in 1998 kept its name when it was gobbled by Premier Community Bank in January 2006. But when Albemarle First became the 27th acquisition of West Virginia-based United Bankshares in January 2007, the bigger fish consigned the local name to the swag-heap of history. But no shareholders were weeping: they've enjoyed returns of more than 200 percent over Ablemarle's nine-year existence.

Even though the sale was announced months ago, the transition did not become a fait accompli until last weekend when signage changed and even the bank's awnings got a new look.

Shareholders who still held stocks purchased for $10 (the value dipped a bit after the Ivy Industries debacle) saw them soar to $31.62 in the sale to United Bank. "I'm pleased," says Albemarle First founding director Richard Selden.

Albemarle First's assumption by United Bank ends a decade of competing, locally owned community banks in Charlottesville. Virginia National Bank, now boasting $299 million in deposits, also arrived on the scene in 1998.

"Albemarle First had some rough experiences getting launched," says Selden. "I was disappointed those bumps in the road came along."

The biggest bump was the $2.4 million check kiting scheme perpetrated by Ivy Industries CEO John Reid to save his company in 2002. Reid was sentenced to four years in 2004, and the former Ivy Industries building is now the site of ACAC.

"It seemed to me the problems of the past still haunted us," says Selden. "I thought we could eliminate that by the merger. That's why I supported the merger with Premier."

Former shareholder Richard Spurzem says the idea of a community bank cooked up by local citizens didn't really succeed. "Now it's a branch of a West Virginia bank," says Spurzem.

But United Bankshares president and CEO Jim Consagra touts his company's community banking philosophy in all its 115 branches throughout Virginia, DC, Maryland, West Virginia, and Ohio. And he points to a recent Bank Director magazine ranking of the top 150 banks by size, profitability, asset quality, and capital adequacy that put United at number 22.

"We just love the Charlottesville market," says Consagra. "Charlottesville is one of the main reasons for us to buy Premier. It's strategically important to us." And United Bank promises Albemarle First customers will see the same faces when they walk into their branch.

But those who wax sentimental about the now-merged bank and who have an eye toward collectible swag should hang onto those Albemarle First coffee mugs.