When Wall Street investors opened their wallets wide to BankUnited Inc., they were sending a message to other capital-hungry community banks. It just was not the message that those banks were hoping for.

In its Jan. 28 initial public offering, the John Kanas-led company captured a record amount of cash for a U.S. bank IPO. But observers cautioned that Wall Street's collective memory remains focused on investments hurt by the financial crisis. BankUnited escaped the tarring because it was the rare relative bargain loaded with equity and steered by heavyweight bankers.

"All the stars were aligned in this deal," said Dan Bass, a managing director at FBR Capital Markets. "The management team, the equity backing, and the way they negotiated the deal with the FDIC … made it a unique opportunity that's really not out there."

The Miami Lakes, Fla., thrift raised $783 million in its IPO, according to BankUnited's lead underwriter, Morgan Stanley. The $11.2 billion-asset company offered shares at $27 each — above the original estimate of $23 to $25. By the night of issuance, the shares were trading at 5% above the offering price. BankUnited's stock has since traded consistently above $28 a share, closing Thursday at $28.40.

"There's huge interest from growth investors for banks that can deliver a high risk-adjusted return," said Tim Laney, the president and chief executive of NBH Holdings Inc. in Boston, which is, like BankUnited, a failed-bank acquirer intending to go public. "And the way these [failed banks] are being bought (through the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.) can provide that kind of opportunity."

NBH raised nearly $1.2 billion through a private placement with institutional investors in October and has since completed two acquisitions: of the traditional deposits and performing loans of Bank Midwest in Kansas City, Mo., and of the failed Hillcrest Bank in Overland Park, Kan., from the FDIC.

NBH is intending to become publicly owned and is looking for investment bankers but has not yet filed a registration with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Though Laney said he was pleased by investors' reaction to BankUnited's IPO, he cautioned that the market remains "fickle."

"Generally speaking, I believe banks that will go public in the coming year are going to need a pretty unique story," he said.

Wall Street responded strongly to BankUnited's IPO because the bank has "a proven management team with a great track record and investors who people like to invest with," said Chip MacDonald, a partner in Atlanta's Jones Day law firm.

Kanas and a group of well-heeled private-equity shops, including Blackstone Group, Carlyle Group and W.L. Ross & Co., formed BankUnited in April 2009 with more than $900 million in capital it used to buy the failed thrift from the FDIC in a bargain deal a month later. As part of the agreement, the FDIC received a warrant that it later amended to exchange for at least $25 million in cash after the IPO.

Kanas earned his reputation on Wall Street while leading and expanding Long Island's North Fork Bancorp before selling it to Capital One Financial Corp. in 2006.

"We are trying to recreate another North Fork, and I'm not ashamed to say it," Kanas said in a phone interview Friday. "We're positioning BankUnited to be an important part of the consolidation activity in the Southeast."

For now, Kanas plans to expand BankUnited within Florida, particularly its commercial loan volume, which has already grown by half a billion dollars, he said, since he took over in 2009. Then the company plans to open several de novo branches in New York City in 2012.

"I spent 40 years banking in New York," he said, "and it represents a tremendous amount of growth opportunities," especially with small to midsize businesses.

Analysts said that, by going public, BankUnited becomes that much more attractive to sellers because it can now offer a stock exchange in a deal rather than just cash. Owning BankUnited stock creates the potential for even larger gains.

"One of the advantages to having a publicly traded bank is, if you go on an acquisition binge, the currency allows you to do a lot more transactions," said Rick Levenson, the president of Western Financial Corp., a San Diego investment bank.

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