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North Bay Business Journal

Monday, August 13, 2012, 7:00 am

Business Journal Q&A: Deborah Meekins, CEO, First Community Bank

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    Deborah Meekins

    Deborah Meekins

    After leading Sonoma Bank, formerly Sonoma National Bank, for 26 years, longtime local banker Deborah Meekins assumed the role of president and CEO of Santa Rosa’s First Community Bank on Aug 1.

    Sterling executive credits Meekins for bank’s resurgence

    Aug. 13, 2012

    As the company’s top California executive, Deborah Meekins played a key role in engineering the turnaround of Spokane, Wash.-based Sterling Financial Corporation after the Sonoma Bank owner suffered a major financial setback during the recession, said Ezra Eckhardt, president and chief operating officer of Sterling.

    During a recent visit to Santa Rosa, Mr. Eckhardt estimated that between 60 percent and 70 percent of new loans across the western United States are either procured or processed through Sonoma Bank’s headquarters in Santa Rosa. [read more]

    Ms. Meekins discussed her move with the North Bay Business Journal.

    Q. You were named as California market president for Sterling Financial Corporation, the parent company of Sonoma Bank and Sterling Bank, in March, an executive position charged with overseeing the $9.6 billion company’s strategy across the state. What factors drove your decision to step down from that position and assume the role of president and CEO of Santa Rosa-based First Community Bank?

    I worked at Sonoma National Bank for over 26 years. During that time I had the opportunity to hold several positions and was the President and CEO for 17 years until the sale to Sterling in 2007. After the sale, I worked for Greg Seibly, Sterling’s CEO running the retail division and then ran the production division for Sterling’s President, Ezra Eckhardt. We went through some very difficult times but I had the chance to work closely with them and saw first-hand their commitment to making the nearly impossible happen, raising $730 million in new capital in August 2010.

    The experience and knowledge I gained was invaluable. Traveling most of the time was not easy and after four years, I wanted to spend more time at home. When issues subsided at the bank, we discussed a new conceptual position which resulted in the market president role. My direct responsibilities would be growing the California market share, increasing visibility, overseeing commercial banking in California and SBA for the entire bank. I think once I returned, after 26 years of stepping up for the bank and the people to each new challenge, I actually did everything I wanted to do at Sonoma. I was ready for the next challenge.

    Circumstances led to a discussion with Bill Gallaher (First Community chairman) and the role of president and CEO position of First Community Bank was immediately exciting. It would be an opportunity to more fully utilize my experience. It was a very difficult decision but change is good and I’m already re-energized. I will always be proud of Sonoma National Bank. Fabulous leaders and staff!!

    Q. In joining First Community, you will be regularly interacting with board of directors chairman William Gallaher, who helped found First Community and served on the board of directors of Sonoma National Bank (now Sonoma Bank). As two long-time business leaders with a major stake in seeing North Bay banks succeed, please describe the significance of this partnership.

    Bill Gallaher was one of the directors at Sonoma National Bank, and we worked together for 13 years. He is fair, direct and committed to community banking. Some of his greatest contributions at Sonoma were securing spaces in Oakmont and Windsor for two branch locations. He had a vision for the bank’s future and was very active in the strategic direction of the bank.

    We have remained friends throughout the years and developed trust and confidence in each other during the Sonoma National Bank years. I understand and support his vision and the strategy he and the board of directors have for growing a successful community bank. I have the background and track record of running and growing a community bank. I will work effectively with the board of directors, the executive team, regulators and customers to accomplish our goals. I am impressed with the FCB team and have worked with some of them in the past.

    This will be a tremendous partnership.

    Q. You led Sonoma Bank at a difficult time for Sterling, helping the company’s bank subsidiaries to restore continued profitability after a nearly 30 percent drop in assets during the recession and a $730 million capital raise mandated by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. First Community is also among the banks hit by the recession, having restored earnings and maintained equity yet still facing a leftover balance of non-accruing loans. With your experience, and in today’s economy, what do you see as the path towards achieving and maintaining a strong balance sheet?

    • Run a safe and sound bank growing capital to support future expansion and opportunities.
    • Gain and maintain the confidence of new and existing clients.
    • Maintain strong regulatory relationships.
    • Understand the markets we serve and remain competitive and responsive.
    • Provide fairly priced products and services our customers expect through experienced employees.
    • Continue First Community’s seven-year legacy of being one of the “Best Places to Work in the North Bay” in order to attract and retain the best people.
    • Improve the communities we serve through volunteering our time, expertise and financial support.

    Q. The number of banks in the United States has decreased markedly over the past twenty years – the FDIC counts 6,263 today, versus nearly 15,000 in 1992. Amid a wave of mergers and acquisitions driven by increased regulatory and financial pressure, how do community banks remain competitive?

    Local community banks provide jobs, products and services geared towards their customer’s needs. We interact with and provide financial solutions for businesses, professionals, neighbors and friends. Our “hands-on” approach to customer relationships begins with our commitment to listen and find unique financial solutions to meet their needs. We live and work in the communities we serve so we are keenly aware of local issues, concerns and can respond quickly. We are actively involved in making the community a better place to live and work.

    Q. First Community and Sonoma Bank were the top two lenders through the federally backed SBA 7(a) program in the administration’s last fiscal year, splitting a total of $21 million lent to small businesses across the North Bay. As you move from leading one strong business lender to another, what role do you see commercial lending playing in the North Bay economy?

    My role will be the same as it was at Sonoma. I have been a strong advocate of the SBA program since the early ’90s when it began at Sonoma.

    Supporting small business through lending is one of the most critical components to recovery. FCB has a team of experts who are very knowledgeable in SBA financing with a long track record of production. We are stimulating our local economy through providing financing for new business acquisition, real estate, expansion and/or working capital. All of these support the most critical component of economic recovery — job growth.

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