Ted Peters likes to build things.
The recently retired leader of Bryn Mawr Bank in Pennsylvania has a long history of starting banks, beginning with National Bank of the Main Line in early 1985. A decade later, after selling his first bank, Peters formed First Main Line Bank, using a hoagie shop for office space.
Peters, 65, isn't showing any signs of slowing down, even though he stepped down as the $2.8 billion-asset Bryn Mawr's chief executive earlier this month. Peters, who remains on the bank's board, has formed Bluestone Financial Institutions Fund to invest in community banks. (The fund already has positions in 17 banks.)
In a wide-ranging interview, Peters discussed plans for the fund, which will start accepting outside investments next week, along with his views on bank consolidation, managing through the last recession and the potential for new bank charters. Here is an edited except.
After decades in banking, why start a hedge fund?
TED PETERS: I told the board that I planned to retire three years ago. I knew I wanted to do something after that. I looked at a couple of things. I considered a fund investing in real estate, which I'm also interested in. A couple of small colleges contacted me about adjunct professorships. But I kept coming back to banking. I've been in this business 38 years. It's a fun space to be in.
How far along are your plans?
We've been operating for 21 months in my own name and we've done very well. Our cumulative rate of return over that time has been 32.2% and our benchmark is 18.9%..
Bluestone Financial Institutions Fund goes live on Jan. 20. Our goal is to raise $15 million or $20 million in the next three months. That will come from family and friends. Once we reach that critical mass, we can go to family offices, the institutional market and other banks. Hopefully, we can grow to about $100 million after a few years. We'll see where things go from there.
What is your investment strategy?
We're going to concentrate on micro-cap and small-cap banks. There's a tremendous opportunity there. Most are not followed by analysts and there's an enormous amount of merger and acquisition activity. Last year, there were 272 acquisitions, primarily in the [micro-cap and small-cap] space. There is no doubt in my mind that M&A activity this year will exceed the 2014 total by at least 30 deals. We want to take advantage of that consolidation.
We're going to take 15 to 20 positions at a time. They're going to be small positions, no more than 2% of a bank. We're not going to try to run them. If I own 1% of a bank and I'm a passive fund, and I call up and say I'd like to get to know management, I can't imagine they wouldn't want to sit down.
We're going to be friendly with management. Our evaluation of management will play a big role in our decision.
What are some of the bank investments Bluestone is considering?
Customers Bancorp is a growth story. [Chairman and CEO] Jay Sidhu is a charismatic guy. He's a growth person. Customers just came out with its Bank Mobile initiative, which he thinks will greatly increase core deposits. One of the things I've learned is that you bet on people as much as you do on a business plan. In this case, we're betting on Jay.
I also like Peapack-Gladstone Financial. I like its management. I like its wealth business. I think it's another growth story.
I like Sun Bancorp as a turnaround. This is a bank that has struggled for the past 20 to 25 years. It's gone through a large number of CEOs in that time. I like their new CEO [Thomas M. O'Brien]. He's made a big difference. I also think Sun's a seller.
(A call to Sun wasn't immediately returned.)
Before joining Bryn Mawr, you helped found two banks. Do you think the drought of new charters will let up any time soon?
Unfortunately, I don't see the situation changing for the next few years because the regulators got burned so badly.
A ton of de novo banks around the country got hurt during the recession. If you look at bank failures, a lot of them were de novos. The regulators were partially to blame because they let the de novos get away from their business plans. [Banks] were using hot money they'd obtained from the internet to make speculative loans.
Bryn Mawr seemed to emerge from the last recession with very little damage. Was there more stress behind the scenes?
The recession was the most dramatic [downturn] in my career. Bryn Mawr was very fortunate. We got through with no loan problems and no securities impairment. We were a very vanilla operation, and sometimes vanilla works.
We saw pressure on loan growth, though. Our organic loan growth [before the recession was] 15% [annually]. The minute the recession hit, it dropped like a stone.
What prompted your decision to retire from Bryn Mawr?
It was time for a change. Any organization needs new ideas and leadership after 10 or 12 years, not to mention 14.
Do you feel you left anything unaccomplished at the bank?
When I took over, the first thing we had to do was grow the bank. We were cutting along at about $400 million of assets. Our wealth division managed $1.4 billion [in assets under management]. Now it manages $7.8 billion. The stock price has tripled.
The stock has a lot more liquidity, too. When I took over, we were trading about 1,000 shares a day. Now it's something like 30,000.
We accomplished big things. Our assets are up, assets under management are up and the stock price is up. We had a wonderful culture of service, and we've retained that. We accomplished the things we wanted to accomplish.