BB&T-SunTrust deal has Atlanta banks licking their chops

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A large number of banks could benefit from BB&T's pending purchase of SunTrust Banks.

Any misstep by BB&T will provide opportunities in several markets for other banks. Atlanta, in particular, will be a major battleground for talent and business even if BB&T pulls off a flawless merger and integration of SunTrust, given its plans for a new brand and significant cost-cutting — and the city's loss of a corporate headquarters to Charlotte, N.C.

Few deals the past decade have been as big or as potentially disruptive as the pending $28 billion merger.

Smaller institutions are already making plans to take market share away from BB&T and SunTrust. Expect many of those banks to field questions about their plans during upcoming conferences and in April when they report first-quarter results.

“I think every community bank in the Southeast is going to benefit from this,” said Brady Gailey, an analyst at Keefe, Bruyette & Woods.

“Borrowers that want to deal with a smaller, more regional bank are going to start viewing SunTrust-BB&T as one of the big, national players,” Gailey added. “When you have a large, national bank, the customer service is different. It’s harder to get an answer as quickly as you’d like. That’s where the community banks really thrive, on better customer services and on quicker decision-making.”

Some banks will benefit more than others, especially around Atlanta, where BB&T and SunTrust collectively hold more than $55 billion in deposits, said Chris Marinac, an analyst at FIG Partners.

Beneficiaries could include mainstays United Community Banks and Synovus Financial, along with relative newcomers such as Cadence Bancorp., Renasant and CenterState Bank that have entered Atlanta through recent acquisitions. Ameris Bancorp, which has agreed to buy Fidelity Southern, could also capitalize on the BB&T-SunTrust merger.

Atlanta is "wide open" from a competitive standpoint, Marinac said. “The turnover of relationships is potentially huge."

The BB&T-SunTrust deal was the seventh in the Atlanta area in 14 months. Longtime fixtures like Fidelity Southern and Brand Banking are disappearing, potentially putting scores of bankers and billions of dollars in deposits into play.

The timing could not have been better for Samuel Tortorici, CEO of the $18 billion-asset Cadence Bank, a newcomer of sorts to Georgia that specializes in middle-market lending.

News of the SunTrust-BB&T deal came just five weeks after Cadence’s parent company completed its purchase of State Bank Financial, which was based in Atlanta and ensconced in several markets around the state. Cadence moved its bank headquarters to Atlanta from Birmingham, Ala., as part of the deal.

Merging SunTrust and BB&T will put banking talent in play and perhaps make customers more amenable to switching banks at exactly the moment when Cadence is gearing up to hire commercial lenders, wealth managers and private bankers, Tortorici said.

“It’s going to accelerate our timeline,” Tortorici said. “With a major merger of equals there's significant disruption, and you typically do see a lot of change of personnel and people looking at other options. So I think our ability to attract clients and to recruit [employees] is improved.”

United Community in Blairsville, Ga., also senses an opportunity to take business away from BB&T.

“Those banks share a culture probably very similar to ours,” said Doug Higgins, who was recently named United's metro Atlanta president. “That has now changed. They’re not going to be under local control. We anticipate there’s going to be significant changes for employees and customers."

Larger banks such as Regions Financial in Birmingham are also keeping an eye on developments.

"Two banks of comparable size together in a merger of equals is going to result in some fallout," said John Turner, Regions' CEO. "There will be bankers who will no longer be employed. There will be customers who in some way are potentially disrupted. So we want to make sure we’re focused on taking advantage of whatever opportunities present themselves, and there will likely be some."

A heightened level of disruption should be a positive for competitors, said Cheryl Pate, a senior portfolio analyst at Angel Oak Capital Advisors.

“There’s a lot of opportunity to add talent and customers,” she said.

What might seem to be a small loss in business to BB&T could represent a major gain for a community bank, said Jonathan Hightower, a partner at Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner who works in the firm's Atlanta office.

"There's a lot of optimism in the air about perceived opportunities," Hightower added.

The fiercest competition will likely involve small-business banking.

While BB&T will be able to tout a broader product set and superior technology, Hightower said regional and community banks will promote relationship banking.

BB&T and SunTrust "are going to be making decisions about the types of loans and concentrations they want,” Marinac said. “I suspect small commercial-and-industrial relationships aren’t going to be the focus. It will be more on midsize and larger clients, so that creates an opening for community banks.”

BB&T, for its part, disagrees.

"Our small-business client relationships are incredibly important to us and that will not change," BB&T spokesman Brian Davis wrote in a Tuesday email.

"Our community banking approach is unique from other large regionals and allows us to serve our small-business clients on a more personal level, providing them with the kind of attention they expect from a hometown bank," Davis added. "At the same time, our scale and capabilities allow us to provide solutions that many smaller banks are unable to deliver."

BB&T's community banking operations will be run out of Winston-Salem, N.C., where the company is currently based. Atlanta will house wholesale banking operations.

While Gailey agreed that small and midsize businesses will remain important to BB&T, he said the merger, by adding significant heft, "will push them toward larger commercial borrowers."

Under that scenario, Pate sees opportunity for Synovus. Marinac and Gailey pointed to Ameris.

Gailey said the $2.9 billion-asset Atlantic Capital Banchsares is another bank poised to make gains.

Atlantic Capital is "kind of a middle-market, corporate lender," Gailey said. "That’s right in line with what SunTrust and BB&T did, so it’s going to be a huge opportunity for them."

United, which has 29 Atlanta-area branches, also stands to gain, Marinac said. While United is a serial acquirer, Marinac says organic opportunities are so ripe that it will take a break from acquisitions. A comfortable loan-to-deposit ratio, which stood at 80.9% on Dec. 31, also removes pressure on United to ramp up deposit pricing.

“They don’t need to do a big acquisition to underscore what they want to accomplish,” Marinac said of United. “It’s more like ground warfare. Banker versus banker. One loan and deposit at a time. There’s a lot to be said about that keep-it-simple strategy.”

“This Atlanta market is so key to us,” said Rich Bradshaw, United's chief banking officer. Higgins “has hit the ground running and we're excited to be extending our first offer to his first target candidate, with several more interviews in process.”

Cadence acquired 32 branches in Georgia as part of the State Bank deal, and Tortorici indicated that it might pursue more retail growth than originally planned given expected fallout from the BB&T-SunTrust merger. That is growth that otherwise probably would have had to come from more whole-bank acquisitions.

“We have a nice deposit franchise throughout Georgia," but "it could be bigger,” Tortorici said. SunTrust and BB&T could have to divest or close a number of branches, “so that could create a retail opportunity for Cadence where there wasn’t necessarily in the original playbook.”

Deposit growth is very important for Cadence, which had cited the liquidity it gained from State Bank as a big draw. Cadence’s loan-to-deposit ratio, which exceeded 90% on Dec. 31, according to data from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., is now in the mid-80s as a result of the deal, Tortorici said.

“There have been a very few deals of this magnitude that I think can create such disruption in the market that a lot of banks can benefit from,” he said.

Dean Anason and Laura Alix contributed to this report.

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