Residential, construction boom lead local banks to expand
By Armie Margaret Lee
Banks with South Florida roots continue to broaden their branch networks, spurred by new residents and the accompanying construction explosion.
Great Florida Bank, for instance, plans to open at least 10 branches during the next four months, a move that would more than double its locations. Barely a year old, the bank has six branches and 115 employees.
Eve Greenbarg, director of marketing and public relations, said that by the end of October, the bank will set up shop in North Miami, Sunny Isles Beach, Cooper City, Hallandale, Doral, Weston, Hialeah and Coral Gables.
"We want to make our presence known," Ms. Greenbarg said.
For its next wave of expansion, the bank, whose assets hit $504 million in the first quarter, plans next to tap into the North Florida market. "We're looking at high-traffic mall areas and existing locations further north," she said.
The Miami Lakes company opened in June 2004 with $60 million in startup capital.
Ms. Greenbarg attributed Great Florida Bank's rapid growth to its ability to blend technology with customer service. Bank CEO "Mehdi Ghomeshi has over 30 years of experience in the industry," she said. "Seeing how the bigger guys come away from customer service, he wanted to bring banking to the level where it used to be - where people can have a personal banker. Everyone deserves the same treatment."
The population boom in Florida, she said, is partly fueling the expansion drive. "There are enough customers to go around."
The opportunities attached to the surge in population were not lost on other local banks.
"Florida, especially it's southern half, is growing," said Doug Sawyer, executive vice president of retail banking at BankUnited, which is looking to add five to 10 branches by year's end. "We're in good position to take advantage of the opportunity."
Timing, he said, is key.
"So many people are moving here, and you see what's going on in real estate. There's an opportunity for business to be had, and to not do so would be a mistake."
The new additions to the bank's branch network by the end of the year, Mr. Sawyer said, could include Fort Pierce, Port St. Lucie, Delray, Fort Lauderdale, Coral Springs, Miramar, Bonita Springs, Fort Myers and Sarasota.
Next year, the Coral Gables bank plans to open 10 to 15 more branches. At present, it has 55 branches and more than 1,000 employees.
Mr. Sawyer said the bank, founded in 1984, has grown to become Florida's largest financial institution with $9.3 billion in assets. She said it has benefited from a micro-market strategy it launched two years ago.
The initiative entailed dividing South Florida into 11 micro-markets and serving each market with more community involvement, interaction with customers and localized decision-making.
"We feel it's hard to operate in the same way in all communities and be successful," he said. The bank, for example, serves Cuban coffee in Hialeah and hands out investment books in Boca Raton.
"The strategy evolves as we move along," Mr. Sawyer added. "The more we get into it, the more success we will reap."
Commercebank is eyeing at least two additional branches by year's end, according to J. Guillermo Villar, president and chief executive.
The Coral Gables bank, which has been in business for 25 years, operates three branches in Miami-Dade, two in Broward, one in Manhattan and one in Houston. It has about 650 employees.
Mr. Villar said the bank, one of the state's largest privately held financial institutions with assets of more than $3.9 billion and $280 million in capital, will open a branch in Tamiami Airport by the end of the month. It also plans to open a branch in Boca Raton and move to a larger facility in Weston later this year.
"One area where we stand out from banks our size is our international customer base, particularly on the deposit side," he said.
Commercebank, he said, has mounted an effort to boost its domestic clientele.
"We always wanted to have a balance between domestic and international. But because of our international connection, we have always had a faster growth in our international business and now we're making a conscious effort to develop our domestic business."
Another local bank plans to open at least two more branches by year's end. Ramon Rasco, chairman of U.S. Century Bank, said plans are under way for the opening of branches in Aventura and South Beach.
The West Flagler bank, which has 10 branches and 90 employees, is also scouting for sites in Pembroke Pines and Pompano Beach.
One of Florida's fastest-growing community banks, U.S. Century Bank ended the first quarter with a net income of $928,000, up 223.5% from a year ago. Founded in October 2002, the bank now has $550 million in assets and $92 million in capital.
"Our bank is laser-focused on the small and medium-sized businesses," Mr. Rasco said. "There's a market that has been crying out for personalized attention. We're filling that need."