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

Aug. 13, 2012

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

Ms. Meekins discussed her move with the North Bay Business Journal. [read more]

[caption id="attachment_59602" align="alignright" width="200"] Ezra Eckhardt[/caption]

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.

“It’s very easy for me to say that Debbie served as a focal point for Sterling’s journey through a difficult time,” said Mr. Eckhardt, on a recent trip to Santa Rosa.

A long-time North Bay banker, Ms. Meekins spent the last 26 years developing Sonoma Bank into an institution that Mr. Eckhardt said plays an integral role in the success of the company’s 186 branches across the western United States.

Between 60 to 70 percent of new loans for Sterling are either procured or processed through Sonoma Bank’s headquarters in Santa Rosa, Mr. Eckhardt estimated. The local Sterling subsidiary serves as the administrative nucleus for SBA, multi-family housing and commercial real estate lending both in California and for Sterling Bank’s branches in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana.

“We view this as one of the core markets for Sterling,” he said.

Sterling Financial Corporation acquired Sonoma National Bank, now Sonoma Bank, in 2006. The acquisition of the 21-year-old bank allowed the company to enter California with what Mr. Eckhardt called a “significant momentum.”

Today, the 14-branch Sonoma Bank is one of the North Bay’s most active commercial lenders, including the $10.2 million in SBA 7(a) loans it financed for small businesses in Sonoma County during the administration’s last fiscal year. The bank also began operating two dedicated home loan centers in 2011.

That growth was not without challenge, said Mr. Eckhardt. Sterling lost 30 percent of its assets during the recession and raised $730 million in capital following an order from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. to protect from those losses.

However, as Sterling recently reported its sixth consecutive profitable quarter, and Mr. Eckhardt credited Ms. Meekins with helping to accomplish that turnaround.

Now, Ms. Meekins has assumed the role of president and CEO of First Community Bank, a transition that Mr. Eckhardt said was discussed with other executives over several months.

“It’s a decision that she had to make for herself. We wish her nothing but good fortune,” he said. "That said, she is now a competitor, and a formidable one."

Sterling recently announced the appointment of David DePillo to the newly created executive position of vice chairman of Sterling Financial Corporation. In that role, Mr. DePillo’s responsibilities will include a focus on development in the California market, Mr. Eckhardt said.

That market development could include future expansion for Sterling in California. Having completed the acquisition of Vancouver, Wash.-based First Independent Bank in March, Mr. Eckhardt said that the bank was looking for opportunities to grow through merger and acquisition “when the time is right.”

Sterling earned a net income of $32 million in the three months ended June 30, along with an additional $288.8 million released from a one-time deferred tax asset. Excluding that asset, net income increased 324 percent from the second quarter in 2012. Total assets were $9.6 billion as of June 30, and the company’s CEO said that the 12.2 percent capital ratio was the healthiest in the company’s history.