Last fall, soon after Congress decided it would spend $700 billion to shore up the nation's flailing financial system, about 100 shareholders of Reunion Bank of Florida gathered for a party. Over crab fondue and London broil, they toasted the start of their spanking new bank. It had been decades since a locally grown bank had opened in Tavares, an old citrus hub about an hour by car from Orlando. "We had folks drive from 45 miles away," recalls Reunion co-founder and CEO Mike Sleaford. "Everyone was so excited."
Partying bank investors? That doesn't seem quite right. Since September, the bad news about banks has been nonstop and not just at the top of the food chain. Although teetering giants like Citigroup and Bank of America grab the headlines, at the end of last year 252 institutions were on the problem list of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), up from 171 three months earlier. Seventeen banks have failed so far in 2009; expect hundreds more over the next few years. (See the top 10 financial collapses of 2008.)
Yet amid all that carnage, there's celebration too. The industry as a whole may be reeling from bad loans and investments, but start-ups like Reunion don't have to wrestle with those problems. Entrepreneurs like Sleaford, even in hard-hit Florida, are setting up shop with completely clean balance sheets. They've got millions of dollars in fresh capital to write loans and to pursue borrowers cast aside by banks focused on mopping up the mess from the years of excess. "New banks see people having a tough time getting loans, plus their funding costs are cheap since rates are low and they pay next to nothing for deposits," says Richard Sylla, an economist at New York University's Stern School of Business. "There's a profit opportunity there." Odd as it may sound, it's a great time to start a bank.
Bankers get that. Since last summer, at least 30 groups have filed to start new banks, according to SNL Financial. From Richmond, Va., to Tulsa, Okla., to Pacific Palisades, Calif., community bankers are hitting the pavement, raising funds a few hundred thousand dollars at a time from stock-market-wary investors. It's not an easy sell, and regulators, spooked by the wave of failures, are making it tougher than ever to win approval. For entrepreneurs who can run that gauntlet, though, the stars are aligned for small independent banks in a way they probably never will be again.
Last March, when Kenneth LaRoe set out to start a bank in Eustis the next town over from Tavares the speed bumps were already starting to pop up. Building a bank was old hat to LaRoe. The one he founded in 1999, he sold to a larger company in 2006, quadrupling investors' money. This time around, he lined up $24 million in commitments in three months. Then came IndyMac. On July 11, the FDIC moved to take over the nation's seventh largest savings and loan, a casualty of aggressive home lending and one of the biggest bank failures in U.S. history. Images of depositors lining up to pull their money out of the bank flooded the media.
LaRoe started getting calls immediately. People who had pledged to invest half a million dollars were dialing back to $200,000. Those who had been offering $200,000 were opting out altogether. Throughout the fall, the hits kept coming. Washington Mutual collapsed. Wachovia was sold off. Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson went before Congress begging for money, looking as if he'd seen a ghost. "It got to the point where I didn't want to pick up the paper or turn on the TV," says LaRoe. "The mantra I kept singing was 'This is perfect, guys. This is perfect. The banks won't even loan banks money.' "
Eventually, LaRoe won out. First Green Bank opened its doors on Feb. 17 and business has been booming. On a recent weekday morning, loan officers and account reps zipped between desks and offices, sidestepping exercise equipment (the bank is operating out of a defunct fitness center until it completes its new eco-friendly headquarters). When First Green was applying for a charter, it figured to make $39 million of loans in its first year. The bank already has nearly $60 million worth in the pipeline.
That's partly because First Green is picking up qualified borrowers that other lenders are shedding. Banks that have placed too many bets on real estate and construction loans are stumbling and cutting back lending. "Banks are looking to lessen the risk on their balance sheets," says Gerard Cassidy, managing director and banks analyst at RBC Capital Markets. "Even a good customer may be encouraged to leave."