Smooth sailing for bank

El Dorado Savings Bank cites customer service, conservative approach for success
By: Art Garcia, Telegraph Correspondent
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Think small is the way to grow big, believes management of El Dorado Savings Bank, a success story in one of the most turbulent times for the banking industry. Add a heavy dose of personalized customer service, mix with a conservative business approach and blend with a focus on doing what it knows best. The result: a bank that outperforms most of its community competitors and the national megabanks. Learn from past experience during hard times and forget following trends is the strategy the 35-branch local bank has followed over the 52 years since being launched by local businessmen in Placerville. It has since expanded throughout foothills communities and elsewhere in mostly Northern California and Northern Nevada. Extension and expansion beyond the territory it’s staked out would make the company “too difficult to manage and control,” said Thomas Meuser, 64-year-old chairman and CEO the past 19 years who began his El Dorado career in 1969 as a management trainee. “We’re now in the Mother Lode from Grass Valley to Twain Harte. There are several towns we’re not located in, one being Auburn. Others are Angel’s Camp and Sonora. Those would be fill-ins,” he said. “If something came available there, we’d probably be interested.” The bank’s established culture is personalized customer service, with all branch employees expected to welcome customers by name. It’s a message Meuser delivers personally and branch managers reinforce, following the boss’ lead that “a bank isn’t just a place to do a transaction. It’s about building relationships, and that’s what we do.” “We know our customers and we acknowledge them when they come in,” confirms Donna McCrae, branch manager in El Dorado Hills and 32-year-veteran of the bank. “We take extra steps to make sure we satisfy them. “We’re a hands-on bank,” added McCrae, 65. “I’m here every day and all of our managers are loan officers.” Her policy “absolutely” is open-door for customers. “If anyone has an issue they can come in and talk about the problem, whatever it is.” Homegrown banks may not be able to take on the major national institutions but El Dorado Savings believes it can out-perform their branches. As of this past September 30, the bank had total deposits of $1.359 billion vs. $1.325 billion at the end of last year’s third quarter. For all of 2008, it posted total income after taxes of $9.6 million and total savings of $1.33 billion. In the current fourth quarter, income is “down a little bit,” Meuser said, following third quarter results of $2.69 million against $3.33 million in the comparable 2008 period. He attributes the decline to lower rates available on new investments. “The Fed is keeping rates low to try to stimulate the economy and we’re investing at very low interest rates because we’re primarily interested in the quality of the investment, not the rate of the return,” he said. There are no plans for the closely held bank, with about 150 stockholders, to offer shares to the general public. “There are a lot of advantages to being privately held,” Meuser commented. “There are a lot fewer reporting requirements and we don’t have to meet Securities and Exchange Commission requirements for reporting, which is very expensive. Plus, you don’t have New York analysts telling you how to operate your bank.” El Dorado has no interest in being acquired or involved in a merger. If anything, Meuser said, “We would be the acquirer.” Expansion will not be de novo, or opening new branches - “too expensive” - but by purchasing available branches. Meuser lives on a small farm in Placerville with Jane, his wife of 42 years. Besides reading and listening to classical music when he can, his hobby is the farm, where the family grows fruit and nut trees, grapes, blueberries and strawberries and has llamas and goats. Meuser majored in English at St. Mary’s College and earned a graduate degree at California State University, San Francisco. --- SHOP TALK El Dorado Savings Bank Headquarters: Placerville Branches: 35 Founded: 1957 Local Office: 3963 Park Drive, El Dorado Hills Phone: (916) 933-3002 Info: