While many Florida businesses are still reeling from the prolonged recession and real estate market collapse, few have felt the pain of the one-two punch as acutely as the state’s independent banks. But in Southwest Florida, one locally-based lender has come out swinging.
Since being acquired by Bond Street Holdings, Inc. in 2010, Florida Community Bank (FCB) has come back stronger than ever — and in record time. In just two years, it has grown into the fifth-largest independent bank in Florida, with 41 locations statewide and assets exceeding $3 billion.
“Since 2011, FCB has extended more than $800 million in credit to the marketplace,” says FCB’s President and CEO Kent Ellert. “That’s pretty significant. I don’t know of any other independent bank in Florida that has done that in a two-year period.”
An Ambitious Beginning
From the outset, Ellert says the goal was to grow FCB into Florida’s leading independent commercial bank. “Entrepreneurs very much need local, independent banks that can understand their business and provide the financial solutions to help them grow. It’s important for the future of Florida,” he says.
However, in the recent past, many local banks have either failed or been bought out by large, national banks. For customers used to dealing with local lenders on a first-name basis, the proliferation of megabanks has been discouraging.
“Between 2007 and 2009, most of the banking market share was flowing very rapidly to the large national banks, so the real community market was grossly underserved,” says Ellert. “We thought we could create a strong platform to do that and save a lot of jobs in the process.” First, they had to navigate some rough regulatory waters.
Ellert says that while bank regulators typically are not inclined to issue banking charters to individuals without a platform, the collective experience of the holding company partners helped clear that hurdle. All have impressive and varied backgrounds in the financial services industries, with extensive experience in the areas of investment banking and securities, among others. Ellert’s career spans two decades in the banking industry and includes serving as regional president of Wachovia Bank (now Wells Fargo) in Naples during its acquisition of SouthTrust Bank. During those years, he obtained “a tremendous amount” of technical expertise and insight into management; skills that proved invaluable in starting a bank from scratch.
In late 2009, the Bond Street partners, who include Ellert, raised an initial $440 million and in early 2010 began acquiring banks: Premier American Bank, based in Miami, followed by FCB and then Peninsula Bank in Englewood. Of the three, Immokalee-based FCB has the deepest roots. It was established by Collier County founder, Barron Collier, in 1923 and is thought to be the oldest independent bank in Florida.
By the end of 2010, Bond Street Holdings boasted assets of more than $2.4 billion and raised an additional $300 million to expand its banking network. In 2011, it acquired five more Florida-based banks: Sunshine State Community Bank (Daytona); First National Bank of Central Florida (Orlando); Cortez Community Bank (Brooksville); Coastal Bank (Cocoa Beach) and First Peoples Bank (Port St. Lucie). Also that year, all eight banks were rebranded as FCB to reflect its Florida base and focus.
A Community Partner
According to Ellert, FCB is designed to be an integral part of the community — not as a vehicle for building assets in order to sell to a larger, national bank. He says that as a permanent fixture in the market, FCB can make a dramatic and positive impact on the local economy.
“The ability for companies to borrow directly translates to employment,” says Ellert. “If they lack the confidence to borrow, they’re not going to start projects and they’re not going to hire people. Therefore, what we do as financial institutions has a powerful influence on the wellbeing of our community.”
Currently, FCB provides comprehensive banking services to individual and commercial customers representing more than 67,000 households in Florida. Its full-service offerings span the fiscal spectrum, from transaction accounts to Treasury management to electronic banking.
Because it has invested heavily in state-of-the-art technology, FCB is one of the few independent banks that can deliver the same quality of products and services offered by its much larger competitors, but with the personal touch of a hometown bank. “We are healthy and well capitalized, so we can afford to provide very good, very competitive interest-bearing products, home mortgages and consumer loans,” among other products.
Despite the perception that banks aren’t lending money, Ellert says that FCB has been “very active” in the marketplace, making commercial and industrial (C&I), commercial real estate, residential and syndication loans. From 2011 – 2012, its C&I and commercial real estate loan revenue both increased considerably, almost doubling year to year.
“We have much more capital than the typical independent bank in Florida, so we’re able to transact much larger loans,” says Ellert, adding that FCB has had transactions as high as $40 million. Currently, it is offering qualified buyers five-year, fixed-rate loans for commercial real estate at 3.49%. “We’re helping businesses grow.”
Recently, FCB expanded its mortgage department at its Moorings branch in Naples to meet the growing demand for residential mortgages in that area. A qualified mortgage loan officer is also available at each of FCB’s other 40 branch locations.
Lending money isn’t the only way FCB is helping the communities it serves. As the banking network has grown, it has created more than 520 jobs. “That means we’ve had a positive impact on 520 households in Florida,” says Ellert. “I think that’s a big deal at a time when people are trying to find work.”
Ellert attributes the bank’s meteoric growth largely to the employees’ ability to cooperate and communicate. “People say that banking is a financial capital business, but it’s really a human capital business. We have a fantastic team,” he says.
To keep everyone connected, FCB hosts quarterly employee meetings known as E3 Expos (Employee Educational Experience). The gatherings are as social as they are educational, and provide employees the opportunity to discuss what is on their mind. “It doesn’t matter what your title is or what bank you came from. If you have a seat at the table, we want to hear from you.”
Ellert also conducts monthly conference calls to bring the branches and departments together over the phone. Employees from around the state will dial in to “Coffee with Kent” to hear the latest FCB news and to ask questions. “We pride ourselves on being very communicative and open,” he adds. “It’s critical to success in an environment where things are moving so quickly.”
FCB’s corporate philosophy also emphasizes giving back to the areas it serves. To that end, the bank and its employees generously support a growing list of charitable organizations and events, volunteering time and resources to enrich their respective communities.
Connecting With Customers
Remarkably, FCB has grown without a traditional marketing campaign, relying instead on word-of-mouth advertising. “We’re a private company that makes local decisions,” says Ellert. “We believe in creating value with the business we conduct, not with merchandising.” Accordingly, FCB continues to attract customers who “want to do business with someone who understands the local marketplace.”
Caroline Beasley, executive vice president and CFO of Beasley Broadcasting Group in Naples, began moving her company’s accounts to FCB last August. Based on the bank’s outstanding service, she ended up moving the operating accounts for all of Beasley’s radio stations to FCB.
With 44 radio stations in 11 markets nationwide, “that transition was a very big undertaking, as you might imagine,” says Beasley. “But they worked with us along the way so what could have been a very tough transition was actually quite smooth. It’s the way banking relationships should be.”
Beasley says she especially appreciates having direct access to helpful people. “Rather than calling someone and getting put through to five different people, I have a direct contact who will immediately address any questions or problems I might have. That is so refreshing! They’re a great partner to work with.”
Naples businessman Tom Hadinger made the switch to FCB in 2011. “I like a bank that’s local,” says Hadinger, founder and chairman of Naples-based Hadinger Flooring. With two locations in Fort Myers and Naples, the company’s annual sales totaled more than $20 million last year.
When Hadinger’s first came to the area in 1976, its corporate accounts were with community banks that were acquired by national banks. “Every time I turned around, (the banks) were something different and there were new people to work with,” he says. “I know that happens and that’s life, but each time a bank gets bigger, you’re that much further away from really knowing people.”
Patti Byers was one person Hadinger knew and appreciated during the years she handled his commercial account at another community bank in Naples. When she went to work for FCB, Hadinger followed. “She knows everyone here (at Hadinger’s) and works closely with our CFO,” he says. “Through her, we’ve gotten to meet many other people who work at the bank. It’s a very nice group.”
Hadinger says that while Byers was the catalyst for the switch, FCB offered advantages that the other bank didn’t, namely more convenient locations and a more attractive rate on a larger equity line. As a result, he moved all of his company’s accounts to FCB, including corporate checking and electronic depositing. Many Hadinger employees have since followed suit and opened personal accounts with FCB.
As the economy rebounds, Ellert says FCB will continue to expand its Florida footprint, including in Southwest Florida where it currently has branches in Collier, Lee, Charlotte, Hendry and Sarasota counties. “We intend to double the size of our branch network statewide in the next several years,” says Ellert. Within five years, the goal is to be the number-one independent bank in Florida.
“We’ve spent the last three years building a significant banking franchise to serve our state. The evidence is pretty compelling that FCB is on the move and if you’re looking to do banking business, then we are probably someone you want to talk to.”
Contact FCB at 877-378-4297 or visit www.FloridaCommunityBank.com.