TowneBank founder reflectsPublished 8:31pm Monday, May 5, 2014
TowneBank Portsmouth’s founding president says his 50th high school reunion this year factored into a decision to step down from the executive board at the end of 2013.
“I graduated in 1965 from Churchland High School,” P. Ward Robinett Jr. said. “It’s a wake-up call when you start going through the list of how many people are deceased that you remember from your high school days.
“When you are north of 66 years old, it’s time to start thinking about other things in your life, when you still have your health.”
Robinett and partners started TowneBank in 1999. They’d all had careers with other institutions in Hampton Roads, Robinett said. The timing was just before North Suffolk’s growth spurt began — only to slow several years later.
Robinett said he had started his career with American National Bank, which merged a number of times and is now a constituent of Wells Fargo.
“We started TowneBank, because the majority of us had always been community bankers,” he said. “We felt like with all of the mergers going on … there weren’t any local decision-makers to assist small businesses and the consuming public.”
Starting out, Robinett said, TowneBank raised so much money — $50 million — that it wound up sending about $14 million back.
It started with offices in Churchland, Virginia Beach and Chesapeake.
“The state banking commissioner was kind enough to grant us a charter for three locations under one umbrella, which had really never been done before in the commonwealth,” Robinett said.
The Portsmouth operations Robinett was in charge of grew to three offices. “Then I had the additional responsibility of Suffolk when it moved out here,” he said.
North Suffolk “had its challenges,” he said, “particularly when JFCOM (U.S. Joint Forces Command) left.”
For several years, Robinett said, “Things weren’t moving as rapidly as they should have been.” But recent residential and commercial backfill has helped.
“We have been looking around for opportunity for future expansion, but with the downturn in the economy and the number of banks currently in the city of Suffolk, it really didn’t meet our model,” Robinett said.
That model, according to Robinett, includes larger branch buildings, where members can deal directly with decision-makers, but fewer branches than other banks.
“We need to have a larger deposit base in those communities than the traditional bank branch,” he said.
“We like to staff our branches as full-service branches where the member has an opportunity to deal with the decision-maker. The relationship is probably the most important thing to us.”
Supporting the communities it operates in is also “in our DNA,” Robinett said, adding, “We try to do that by having everyone within the organization … involved in the community.”
Driving down Harbour View Boulevard, large, expensive buildings are one of the more obvious points of difference between TowneBank and other banks.
“We have heard rumblings from some people in the community about the big, beautiful buildings,” Robinett said.
But having smaller branches on every corner doesn’t fit the TowneBank model, he said. “Our goal had always been to grow each of our offices to $100 million in assets,” instead of, for instance, five branches with $20 million each in assets, he added.
“You really don’t want to have limited service in a lot of locations when you can have full service in a lot of locations,” Robinett said.
TowneBank has expanded into other businesses that are also housed in its buildings, like Sera-Brynn, for instance, a cyber security business with an office at Harbour View Financial Center, where TowneBank also has a couple of tenants.
Robinett is currently consulting for the bank with Sera-Brynn, he said, and will continue with TowneBank in an advisory role as he withdraws gradually.
“Things have changed since we first started,” he said. “We need to have more independent directors than in the past, and it’s time for some younger people” to step forward.
Dawn S. Glynn has replaced Robinett, becoming president of a new district including Suffolk, Portsmouth and Chesapeake.
“I had the opportunity as a young man to do things that I know some of the young people working here would like to have,” Robinett said.
He has stepped down with “mixed emotions,” he said, but “with a strong sense of pride in what we have been able to accomplish” — including assets in excess of $4.67 billion at the end of 2013 — and “with a lot of confidence that those people that will come after me will do a better job than I have.”