Sterling renames Sonoma Bank as 'Argent'

SANTA ROSA -- Sterling Financial Corp. will unite Sonoma Bank and other California subsidiaries under a new name, Argent Bank, in the coming months, the Spokane, Wash.-based parent company announced.

The decision, follows a recent push by Sterling to grow its operations in California after acquiring the former Sonoma National Bank in 2007. The company also acquired Southern California's Borrego Springs Bank this year, and plans to complete the acquisition of another Southern California institution, Commerce National Bank, by yearend.

"It gives us a chance to reintroduce ourselves," said David DePillo, executive vice president and vice chairman for Sterling and its largest subsidiary, Sterling Bank. "It really solidifies us as a West Coast bank."

The name change is expected to go into effect for Sonoma Bank's current branches on Sept. 23, according to Sterling spokeswoman Cara Coon.

Meaning "silver" in French, the name is meant to invoke a sense of strength and a relationship to the name Sterling, Ms. Coon said. The look of branches will be largely unchanged, as well as current staff and management.

Mr. DePilllo acknowledged that the change would mean an end to a name in North Bay community banking that has existed for nearly 30 years. He emphasized that the region, like other markets for Sterling, will continue to pursue a community bank approach with a large deal of autonomy, headed by long-time North Bay banker Jamie Williams as the recently appointed market president.

"Even though some of our clients in Northern California have banked under Sonoma Bank for years, our hope is that they will see the value proposition in the growing brand," he said. "Although our customers were able to identify with us on a local level, that message can be lost as they touch the other parts of the bank."

Sterling has continued to report loan and profit growth in recent years, acquiring a number of smaller banks in the western United States and continuing a significant turnaround from the worst of the recession. Regulators had required the bank to raise hundreds of millions in capital amid significant loan losses in 2009, and lifted that order after a successful recapitalization effort in 2010.

The company now has $9.9 billion in total assets, with only 1.7 percent of those considered nonperforming in the most recent quarter.

Both Sonoma Bank and Sterling Bank adopted new logos last year, the first such effort for Sterling in 29 years and meant to emphasize the lender's renewal. That logo -- with two overlapping "leaves" symbolizing commercial and retail banking -- will remain after name change to Argent Bank.

Executives have noted that adopting the Sterling Bank branding in California could entail certain complications due to the activities of another bank operating largely in San Francisco, the $859 million-asset Sterling Bank and Trust. Yet Mr. DePillo said that the decision to adopt the Argent name hinged moreso on the opportunity to grow the brand distinctly throughout California.

"A new, fresh look in California is probably better for us over time," Mr. DePillo said. "We have been very active recently in California. We wanted to unite under a common theme, and a common brand."


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