As M&A rebounds in Atlanta, choice targets become scarce

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John Corbett feared that his shot at getting meaningful scale in Atlanta was slipping away.

Corbett, president and CEO of CenterState Bank in Winter Haven, Fla., believed consolidation around the city would follow the lead of North Carolina, where most of the biggest banks were scooped up in a short amount of time. That day seemed to be fast approaching in Atlanta, as market forces made selling an easier decision.

That prompted the $10.3 billion-asset CenterState to start talking to Charter Financial in West Point, Ga., after being introduced by a consultant. CenterState agreed on Tuesday to buy the $1.6 billion-asset Charter for $360 million — the sixth-biggest bank deal announced this year.

“If we were ever going to Atlanta, time was of the essence,” Corbett said in an interview. “If we waited a year or two, there may not have been a good partner left. You have to seize the moment.”

Recent activity seems to support Corbett's premise, as three of this year's biggest bank deals have involved sellers with meaningful operations in Atlanta.

Brand Group Holdings is selling itself to Renasant for $453 million, while Hamilton State Bancshares is being bought by Ameris Bancorp for $387 million. Another Atlanta-area bank, Landmark Bancshares, agreed on Tuesday to sell itself to National Commerce in Birmingham, Ala.

Atlanta was among the hardest-hit markets during the financial crisis, becoming known as banking's “ring of death” after roughly 90 Georgia banks failed. Traditional bank M&A nearly ground to a halt in the aftermath of the crisis.

Fast forward a few years and the economy has turned, increasing the odds of consolidation, industry experts said. Georgia’s economy has improved, with unemployment down significantly from peak levels. In Atlanta, a glut of housing that burned homebuilders and lenders during the financial crisis is gone.

Some private equity still remains invested in Georgia's banks, which could motivate some institutions to sell.

“If you want to grow, this is a good place to do it,” said Chip MacDonald, a lawyer with Jones Day in Atlanta. “The other thing is diversification. If you're in Florida or Mississippi, the geographic diversification is great. Atlanta has a more diverse economy.”

Post-crisis troubles with Atlanta-area banks won’t deter potential buyers, said Chris Marinac, an analyst at FIG Partners. Past failures were largely a result of an overabundance of de novos, which were formed in the years leading up to the crisis.

“You won’t see the ease of new banks like you once did,” Marinac said. “In the early 2000s, the barriers to entry were low.”

CenterState’s management had telegraphed an interest in Atlanta in recent quarters, said Brady Gailey, an analyst at Keefe, Bruyette & Woods. Atlanta, the Southeast's biggest metropolitan area, is attractive because it has a robust gross domestic product, 6 million residents and serves as home to more than a dozen Fortune 500 companies.

It also has the world’s busiest airport based on passenger traffic, according to the Airports Council International.

CenterState's correspondent banking business is already based in Atlanta, which has allowed executives to meet a number of local bankers. That should help with future M&A discussions and hiring opportunities, Gailey said.

While Charter has eight branches and $700 million in deposits around Atlanta, CenterState was also drawn to the seller's presence in several other markets, Corbett said. Charter's operations fit CenterState’s strategy of gathering cheaper deposits in less-populous areas to use for lending in higher-growth markets.

“Charter looks a lot like CenterState,” Gailey said. “This seems like a fairly good combination — and the deal was priced right.”

Taking into account this year's sales, Atlanta is probably “half way through” a consolidation cycle, Gailey said. It could be "a land grab for the remaining banks” in the area, he said.

Brand, Charter and Hamilton State are among the state's 10 biggest banks, according to FDIC data.

While the state has about 175 banks, many of them are smaller institutions that may not be as attractive to buyers who crave scale. Most buyers are limited to one or two deals a year, which creates a preference for bigger acquisitions that meaningfully move the needle.

“Some of the biggest names that were likely to sell have been taken out and the other potential sellers are less apparent,” MacDonald said. “You want an acquisition to be a sufficient bang for your buck.”

Ameris, Fidelity Southern, State Bank Financial and United Community Banks are the other community banks that are among Georgia's biggest institutions.

CenterState has the capacity to do one or two deals annually, Corbett said. Management will continue to look for deals in Atlanta, though other markets are also in the company's sights, he said. Corbett says more deals will likely happen in Atlanta this year, though the pace could slow.

“I think there's probably a little more on the way, but not at the same pace we've seen so far this year,” Corbett said. “It may not be as rapid fire.”

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