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Community Banker of the Year: CenterState Bank CEO John Corbett

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Like a lot of Florida bankers, John Corbett remembers feeling as though he and his team were very much under siege two years ago, but not for the reasons you'd think.

The problem he was grappling with, as president and CEO of CenterState Bank of Florida, was how to manage the growth of the Winter Haven, Fla., bank and the aggressive building phase that lay ahead.

CenterState's parent had just merged three subsidiaries, acquired three failed banks and raised capital, all within the third quarter of 2010. Corbett knew the acquisitive streak was just getting started. But the company had operated with a $7 million net loss that quarter, and there were still problem loans to be worked out. Could CenterState be a consolidator and a recovery story at the same time?

John Corbett of CenterState Bank (Image: Tim Healy)

"I remember being away in a cabin in the mountains on Christmas and doing a lot of soul searching," Corbett says.

When he returned, he called a meeting and offered management two ways to end what had started: "I said, 'Here's what we've got ourselves into. Does everyone feel we should stay in the offense or just hunker down and go on the defense?'"

They took the harder option.

"The team really stiffened its spine and said the right thing to do is to stay on offense," Corbett says. That decision "really improved the confidence of the team, and their trust in one another is sky-high."

It also solidified the confidence that CenterState's executives have in Corbett, who's being groomed under his longtime mentor and the parent company's chairman and CEO, Ernest Pinner, to one day lead the holding company, CenterState Banks Inc. in Davenport, Fla.

"I trust him implicitly," Pinner says. Corbett "is able to deal with the pressures of the business very successfully. He keeps things from getting out of hand or being overly excited and making decisions too quick."

Since 2010, CenterState has completed 12 bank conversions, including six failed banks, one open bank and four branches acquired from TD Bank.

CenterState Banks has grown more than 30 percent in less than three years to $2.4 billion in assets at Sept. 30. It's the most aggressive failed-bank buyer based in Florida that is not backed by private equity—and one of the few multibillion-asset, homegrown banks left in the state.

That kind of growth, and Corbett's strategy for generating more, has helped him to convince several veteran bank CEOs in the state to leave their own institutions to join him. Sometimes they've signed on without even having a defined piece of the company to manage—arriving in anticipation of expansion deals that will take CenterState to new markets.

One of Corbett's recruits, Gilbert Pomar, left his position as president and CEO of The Jacksonville Bank last year in the midst of closing a private equity-backed deal to acquire another bank.

"It [was] clear to me that not only would CenterState be a survivor but it's a bank that would thrive," Pomar says.

It was a risk nonetheless for Pomar to leave the bank he founded to join CenterState, which had no presence in Jacksonville at the time. But in January, CenterState acquired the failed First Guaranty Bank and Trust Co. of Jacksonville, which Pomar now runs as head of the Northeast Florida market for CenterState.

Corbett's tactic of finding top CEOs in markets where CenterState plans to acquire banks has worked out well in several cities. Pomar attributes that success in large part to Corbett's instincts.

He has "a very good grasp on the future and he see things pretty clearly, even 18 months out ... and then you sit back and watch it come true," Pomar says. "So many of us can only look out three to six months and not very clearly. But he has night vision."

Corbett's prescience has helped not only CenterState, but other banks across the Southeast. In 2008, after many companies exited the correspondent banking business due to painful ties to failed banks, Corbett bought his way into it.

CenterState acquired nearly all of the employees in Royal Bank of Canada's bond sales division in Birmingham, Ala. That sales team was combined with the 40 employees CenterState hired in mid-2009 from Silverton Bank, a failed bankers' bank in Atlanta. The team brought with them bank clients from all over the Southeast that had lost relationships with Silverton, including Stonegate Bank, another failed-bank buyer in Florida.

"Corbett called me when we were both buying FDIC deals, and we share war stories and ideas," said Dave Seleski, president and CEO of Fort Lauderdale-based Stonegate. "We also do correspondent banking with them. They're very innovative and a rising star in the state."

CenterState's correspondent division now has roughly 570 bank clients and is a strong revenue generator for the company. For Corbett, adding a correspondent division also was a part of his plan to build relationships with banks he may want to acquire in the future.

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