The year's busiest banking dealmaker may also be one of the industry's most modest.
Paula Johannsen, managing director at Monroe Financial Partners, has six deals under her belt in 2014, making her the most-active financial adviser at midyear, according to SNL Financial.
"It's reflective of the type of clients I have," she said. Deals with smaller banks are "where there is more activity, and proactive ones that are trying to find partners."
As head of Monroe's Tampa, Fla., office, Johannsen is a key part in Florida's M&A upswing. A former examiner at the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, she says a regulatory background has nothing to do with her dealmaking prowess.
"I let my clients know that, at this point, I don't understand the process any better than they do nor do I have any friends left who I can call," she said.
Johannsen recently discussed the reasons behind Florida's comeback, it's attractiveness to out-of-state buyers and whether M&A will continue to be held up by compliance issues. Here is an edited transcript.
What are your thoughts on the return of M&A in Florida?
PAULA JOHANSSEN: It's a sign the economy is coming back. People still want to come into this market and expand. We've been very blessed with a good long-term market, though we certainly felt the depths of it maybe more so than other markets.
Did the comeback surprise you?
I thought Florida might be tainted a bit longer. It hasn't taken me by surprise recently, but the initial activity outside of FDIC sales took me surprise a couple years ago. Now I think we're on a full roll here.
What are your thoughts on pricing in Florida?
Pricing has improved, but if you make delineations by asset size we're still a little bit below where the Southeast is as a whole. The important piece for my clients to understand is that larger size generally yields larger premiums.
A buyer's unwilling to pay a premium if they're not going to earn it back in a reasonable period. Also, buyers want to amass a franchise quickly, so they'd rather do a $500 million deal rather than five $100 million deals.
How's overall pricing in the Southeast?
In good, strong markets, we're seeing better pricing. Market and size are very important. Decent-sized franchises in good markets are going to fetch more of a premium than those that aren't.
Valley National in New Jersey agreed to buy 1st United in Boca Raton, Fla. Could Florida see more outside buyers?
Florida will always attract out-of-state banks seeking higher-growth markets. It started 20 or 25 years ago with Georgia and North Carolina banks. Then it was Ohio, the Midwest and Pennsylvania; then the Alabama banks. A lot of those banks aren't around anymore. Now we're seeing Louisiana, Arkansas and Mississippi banks coming in.
One of the transactions we did this year was First American Bank in Chicago buying Bank of Coral Gables. First American was already doing some business in Miami, but this is the first physical presence they'll have there. It's probably a nice, lower-risk way to get into the market and see how well their products and services will be accepted.
Do you see any bubbles?
I don't think so. All of the factors that are driving consolidation are still there. That's why we've gone from 12,000 banks to 8,000 to 6,000. From a seller's perspective, the regulatory environment is not getting easier. We're in a muted margin environment for smaller banks. Profitability is going to be lower because of the compliance cost and certainly your profitability leads to valuation.
Buyers are looking for growth when opportunities are low, and they are looking for diversification. Sellers are seeing that they can't keep pace on their own, so it's an opportunity to latch onto somebody who's driving the boat a little bit faster.
Regulators are focusing on compliance. Will this continue to drag out approvals?
Regulators, from a safety and soundness perspective, are hitting [Bank Secrecy Act] compliance issues pretty hard and giving orders to banks outside of major markets. It's an important issue, and one that's not going to be ignored by regulators.
If there's a bank that has any kind of BSA issue, both the buyer and the seller have to go the extra yard assuring the regulators that they are continuing to implement the changes they need to. The buyer doesn't just get to buy [the bank] and put it under its program; it has to prove the program can cure all the problems the seller had plus integrate the seller into a new program as well.
Are there any other notable trends you're seeing?
I'm doing some work in Tennessee. Nashville's been a very bright spot. One of the trends there that I really hope to see in Florida is more mergers of equals. We haven't seen that in Florida, and one of the reasons was that banks were going through tough times for several years, so they couldn't be focusing outward.
Nashville and Atlanta have seen a few of those deals. Those are good, reasonable ways for a community bank to put itself in the position to realize higher sale-of-control premiums in the future.