Washington Mutual replaces Western Bank signs

Washington Mutual replaces Western Bank signs

Mail Tribune

Western Bank, once a model of community banking, will disappear from the state's landscape this weekend.

Workers are changing signs at 30 of the bank's remaining 31 branches. The branches will close Friday and re-open Tuesday as Washington Mutual offices. The exception is the 300 E. Main St. branch in Medford that will be abandoned.

This week's activity is the final page of an epilogue that began when Washington Mutual completed acquisition of Western Bank in February 1996.

Western's seeds were planted in Coos County nearly 100 years ago. Founded in 1904 as the Bank of Bandon, the financial institution shifted its executive offices from Coos Bay to Medford the winter of 1992-93.

Western faced acquisition by U.S. National Bank of Oregon in 1987 when a former Florida banker, Georges St. Laurent Jr., who had settled on a ranch outside Eagle Point, and other investors blocked the takeover.

But 10 years later, Washington Mutual proved a more tolerable suitor for Western Bank.

Southern Oregon University history Professor Jay Mullen chronicled Western Bank's days in "Eagles of the West," published by the Southern Oregon Historical Society.

"When it started out, those guys in Bandon took sandwiches to work, people knew them personally," Mullen said. "It was that way when it expanded up to Coos Bay and when it expanded into Medford, Georges St. Laurent stepped up and kept it localized."

St. Laurent became Western Bank's chairman and chief executive officer from 1988 to 1996. He now lives in Vancouver, Wash.

"There is always pressure on good local banks," Mullen said. "In some respects it's cheaper to buy an existing network than it is to establish a new presence in a community. What ends up happening in the process is that you frequently and usually do lose local character. Western Bank had that local character."

Its identity will now fade into Washington Mutual, numbered among the nation's largest banks.

Washington Mutual spokeswoman Mary Kelley said the Seattle-based operation will have 120 branches, including mortgage lending offices and business banking centers. She said the employees from downtown Medford will either work at the 3607 Crater Lake Ave. office or other nearby branches.

Washington Mutual paid a reported $177 million in February 1996, when Western Bank stockholders received 0.69126 shares of Washington Mutual stock per Western Bank share.

Washington Mutual stock sold for $30.17 a share at the time. It closed down 23 cents at $30.50 on Tuesday.

Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 776-4463 or e-mail .

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