Looking for B. Francis Saul II

I called up a handful of businesspeople I know around Washington after local business legend B. Francis Saul II agreed to sell his Chevy Chase Bank for $520 million to McLean-based Capital One last week. I was looking for some good stories about Saul, who is notoriously private and never talks to the news media.

My only brush with him came at a Washington Post lunch a few years back. He came in late, sat at my table, then headed over to another table before I could plop myself down next to him. I spent the hour talking to his son, Frank Jr.

One of the most poignant images is of the 76-year-old businessman and his close friends breaking bread at a table at the Capital Hilton on 16th Street in downtown Washington every St. Patrick's Day. The room is filled with the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick, a men's Irish Catholic group that gather to honor Ireland's patron saint.

"When you go to the dinner, Frank is at his table with his buddies, [former congressman] Jim Symington, [banker] Danny Callahan and other guys like the late [businessman] Bud Doggett," said one regular attendee. "Frank's been a loyal friend to all these guys. The problem is a lot of his friends are dying. The table seems to be getting smaller."

An era has closed on the banking side of the Saul empire, which, according to the oft-repeated legend, began out of a trailer in 1969. But the Saul family fortune, which traces its roots to when Saul's horticulturalist father started buying and selling real estate in the early 20th century, is bigger than the bank. The B.F. Saul Co. and its real estate arm, Saul Centers, manage shopping centers from Lumberton, N.J., to Tulsa, Okla.

You cannot travel around the Washington region without being touched by a Saul business, whether it's one of the unmistakable 240 bank branches, with their sandy brick exterior and blazing blue signs, or icons such as the Kennedy-Warren on Connecticut Avenue, and Van Ness Square about a mile up the street. The company's hotel division includes more than 3,000 rooms from Washington to Michigan to Florida. Eat at a Subway sandwich shop in Waldorf or shop at a Safeway grocery in Great Falls and you are likely paying a tribute to the Saul family -- the landlords.

Saul's crown jewel is the Hay-Adams Hotel, across from the White House and Lafayette Park. I remember hearing a story about someone who asked Saul why he bought it. Saul's reported response: "How much do you think property across from the White House will be worth in 50 years?"

"They had a huge impact on the whole area ..... a truly local bank," said Charlie Bresler, a longtime Montgomery County developer and onetime Maryland State Delegate. "Chevy Chase was the local bank that withstood the pressure of the takeovers that went from the 1990s to the 2000s."

The bank was viewed as a one-man band, with Frank Sr. leading the march.

"It very definitely had a family feel to it," said Gary B. Townsend, a former bank analyst who became familiar with Chevy Chase as a supervisor for the Federal Housing Finance Board in the early 1990s. "They never developed an obvious succession plan. The best way to describe my thoughts about Francis is he was a mover and a shaker. A developer that had a bank, and that proved useful to him."

Saul, who declined to comment, is shrouded in mystery. Whispers abound. "He walks down the street to church at noon every day." "Seals every deal with a handshake." "Courtly. Reserved." "Put his own money up to see his bank through the banking crisis of the early 1990s." "Could have sold the bank to PNC a couple of years ago and walked away with $2 billion or $3 billion." "Huge giver to the Catholic Church."

Close friends include Jim Clark of Clark Construction, Gilbert Grosvenor of the National Geographic Society (and a Saul company board member) and Albert Small, a major developer who built Park Somerset, the three, high-priced condo buildings just north of Friendship Heights.

The Saul fortune -- estimated by Forbes magazine to be worth $1.6 billion a year ago -- has bought a lot. The multimillion-dollar refurbishment of St. Matthew's Cathedral in downtown Washington was bankrolled, in part, by Saul and his family. For years, he has had a party at his Chevy Chase, Md., home, just over the line from the District, that benefits Immaculate Conception Church, located near the convention center. A representative of the archdiocese was reluctant to speak without Saul's approval, saying the church didn't want to displease someone whose donations had been so important.

"There was a period of time that there wasn't a church built in the diocese that didn't have [Saul] support," one Saul insider said.

A local business wag heard I was snooping and called me to read from a list of Saul's gifts or memberships: National Gallery of Art, National Geographic Society, Federal City Council, Washington Children's Hospital, Folger Shakespeare Library, Corcoran Art Gallery, Brookings Institution, Johns Hopkins Medical Center.

When local fundraisers needed a bank loan to get the Holocaust Museum off the ground back in the 1980s, organizers were turned down by one local bank. They approached Saul, who made the loan "in 10 seconds," according to one Washington financier.

Manny Friedman, a co-founder of Arlington investment bank Friedman, Billings, Ramsey Group said that everyone at the bank -- including people who have worked for him for 20 years -- call the head of the family Mr. Saul.

Chevy Chase Bank is "the one bank that was willing to put massive money and work the man-on-the-street retail deposits," Friedman said. "They had more branches, the best branches, and were always willing to loan money on local housing. They made every effort to fund loans through true, retail deposits."

Friedman helped Saul raise money in the early 1990s to keep the bank afloat -- and in the family's hands.

"I went to his office on Connecticut [Avenue] and saw him. I was this wild man. I forgot to shave that day. I'm telling him how FBR can raise $75 million for him through noncumulative preferred stock. It had never been done before. After we were done, I said, 'Don't we need a contract?' He said, 'I don't do contracts. I do things on a handshake.'"

Friedman said the preferred stock sold out "because of Mr. Saul's reputation."
One local investor, one of many who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of incurring the wrath of Saul, called the banker "a very proud guy who has taken that small company his father started and drove it to where it is today."

If Saul is sad about selling the bank, it wasn't on view Wednesday night, when the deal with Capital One was sealed. After bank hours that day, Saul closed the lobby doors to his towering headquarters on the corner of Wisconsin Avenue and East-West Highway and, like he does every year, hosted the Chevy Chase Bank Christmas party. The lobby was filled with bold-faced names from the Catholic Church, local businesses and various philanthropies.

One participant said he didn't hear a word about the half-billion-dollar bank sale that took place upstairs that afternoon.

"Frank was smiling, slapping people on the back and having a great time," he said.

By Terri Rupar  |  December 7, 2008; 8:00 PM ET  | Category:  Economy Watch , Value Added
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