Start-Up Says Now's the Time to Court Florida Consumers
By Marissa Fajt
Wednesday, January 21, 2009

With its economy in shambles, Florida would hardly seem like the place to start a bank these days.

Two banks failed there in November, and industry insiders say the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. is so concerned about the possibility of more banks going under that it has stopped approving charter applications in the state, fearing the competition could weaken already troubled institutions.

But Anthony Leo, the lead organizer of Consumers First Bank in Sarasota, is undeterred. He said he is moving ahead with capital-raising plans for the bank, which he hopes to open in the summer, because he believes that the economy will recover this year, and that customers will be looking to borrow from banks untainted by the financial crisis.

He also said he is confident the FDIC will approve his group's application for deposit insurance, because the bank is targeting consumers, not real estate developers. Many recently failed or troubled banks can trace their problems to steep losses on construction and development loans.

"We have a plan we feel very strongly is the right time and right place," said Mr. Leo, the chairman and chief executive officer of the proposed bank. "The worst time to start is at the end of a boom. We feel this is exactly the right time to start, because we will be able to leverage our capital to good lending opportunities as the economy begins to recover later this year and into 2010."

It is too soon to tell how much the group has raised, since it started raising capital this month, but is looking to open in the summer with $18 million to $23 million, he said. The goal is to have $400 million of assets within five years.

Consumers First's strategy is to cater to middle-class customers with seven-day-a-week banking, free coin counting, a bilingual staff, next-day fund availability, and a kids club. It also intends to offer company stock to depositors.

However, the fact that it is in Florida could hurt the bank's chances for FDIC approval anytime soon.

Last year the agency rejected 33% of applications for deposit insurance, compared with 20% two years earlier. Industry consultants say they have been told by FDIC officials that it has put approvals for deposit insurance in states hardest hit by the real estate crisis on hold for up to a year.

The two banks that failed in Florida late last year were in Bradenton, just 13 miles from Sarasota.

The FDIC generally does not comment on pending applications for deposit insurance, but Ken Thomas, a Miami consultant who operates the Web site, said regulators — and investors — need to determine if the market can support another bank.

He also said the lead organizers' lack of experience in the Sarasota market — both Mr. Leo and Robert Lawley, the proposed bank's president and chief operating officer, were most recently bankers in Pennsylvania — could give regulators and investors pause.

The Sarasota market has been a hotbed for bank expansion in recent years, and another bank might not find enough deposits or interest from the community, Mr. Thomas said.

As of June 30, 55 banks with 335 branches were doing business in the Sarasota metropolitan statistical area, which has $16.7 billion of deposits. Three years earlier there were 43 banks, with 277 branches, competing for $16 billion of assets.

"It's a competitive market," Mr. Thomas said. "What we have been seeing in recent years is more banks, but the pie stays the same."

Though Mr. Leo and Mr. Lawley are transplants — they were executive vice presidents at Community Banks Inc. when the $14.4 billion-asset Susquehanna Bancshares Inc. in Lititz, Pa., bought it in 2007 — they are giving the proposed bank a local flavor by hiring middle-level lenders with five to 10 years of local lending experience. The executives have also assembled a board that includes a number of local business leaders.

Mr. Leo said he believes that because other start-ups in the Sarasota market have largely targeted business customers and wealthy individuals, there is demand for a strong, consumer-focused bank.

"The retail checking account is not a hard-fought piece of the business in this market," he said. "If you know how to service that clientele, you can be very profitable through both service charges on accounts, debit cards and interchange income, overdraft income, and home equity and car lending."

Lee Bradley, a managing director at the Dallas investment bank and consulting firm Commerce Street Capital LLC, who works with organizing banks, said start-ups can invigorate communities, because they have money to lend.

"There is competition out there, but it is bunker mentality," he said. "The bank that opens today down the street with fresh capital is going to be looking for loans."

Mr. Thomas said that even though many of the community banks in Sarasota are focused on the wealthy, there is still plenty of competition from big banks for the retail side. "The three big banks have over 100 offices" in the market, "and they aren't by any means wealth-oriented."

Bank of America Corp., Wachovia Corp., and SunTrust Banks Inc. had the top deposit shares in the Sarasota market at June 30.

Still, Mr. Thomas said Wells Fargo & Co.'s acquisition of Wachovia could lead to some deposit runoff, which could benefit a bank like Consumers First. Customers "might be interested in going to a new bank if they see it is well capitalized."


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