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It’s a bullish time for banks

Area bankers say their businesses performed even better than they’d expected last year and are optimistic 2007 will turn into another good year.

“I’m still very bullish on the economies in which we operate,” said Curt Hecker, chief operating officer of Sandpoint-based Intermountain Community Bancorp. During his 11 years at the helm, Intermountain has grown from two branches to 19, with total assets of $882 million, he said. The bank-holding company operates under the Panhandle State Bank, Intermountain Community Bank and Magic Valley Banks banners. Each branch is designed to reflect the atmosphere of the small community in which it’s based.

“I think we’re going to continue to see strong growth, positive job gains and low unemployment rates,” Hecker said.

His sunny predictions are echoed by other bankers in the region, with some caveats. Rising energy prices, a sluggish national economy, interest rates and consumer confidence could become economic wild cards in 2007.

Still, this area has a rosier economy than most of the rest of the nation, said Randy Fewel, president and CEO of Inland Northwest Bank.

“We’re somewhat isolated from national goings on and I think that’s a good thing,” said Fewel.

“Last year was a record year for us,” he said. “We grew to $278 million (in assets); that’s 13.6 percent growth. Any time we can achieve double-digit growth, we’re very, very happy.”

INB operates 10 branches, mostly in Spokane County. This year, it plans to open three new branches — one on Spokane’s Francis Avenue, one in Coeur d’Alene and another in Post Falls.

Fewel predicts INB’s earnings this year will grow by about 10 percent. “The housing market in the Inland Northwest is still in good shape and that’s about 25 percent of our business. And a lot of businesses in our area are doing better than ever and I think there will continue to be job growth in 2007 – that helps us all,” he said.

FDIC records show that in June 2006, Spokane County was home to 18 banking organizations with 126 branches and $6.3 billion in total deposits.

Kootenai County had 14 banking companies with 41 branches and a total of $1.6 billion in deposits.Two big Spokane-based banks announced acquisitions last year that will further boost their holdings in 2007.

“We had a truly outstanding year and it came in two functions, acquisitions and internal growth,” said Harold Gilkey, president and CEO of Sterling Financial Corp. “We completed the year at about $9.5 billion (in assets), up a year ago from about $7.5 billion.”

Sterling is in the process of acquiring Sonoma National Bank in Santa Rosa, Calif.; Gilkey expects the deal to close during the first quarter. It will bring total assets up to about $11 billion, he said.

Spokane’s AmericanWest Bancorp. soon will acquire 16 Far West Bancorp. branches in central and southern Utah. They’ll join AmericanWest’s 43 financial centers in Eastern Washington and North Idaho.

“We began 2006 with $1 billion in total assets and added $660 million, bringing us up to $1.8 billion through acquisitions and organic growth. Once we close on Far West in early 2007, we’ll have grown in the last 14 or 15 months by about 80 percent,” said Robert Daugherty, AmericanWest president and CEO.

Daugherty believes bank mergers and acquisitions will continue to boost bottom lines in 2007. “Sometimes it’s easier (for banks) to combine operations and look for efficiencies to get better returns for shareholders,” he said.