Thomas O'Brien believes the worst may be over for Sun Bancorp after the Mount Laurel, N.J., company reported its sixth consecutive quarter in the red.
O'Brien, the turnaround specialist hired in July to lead the $2.7 billion-asset company, had another color in mind in describing the progress made thus far, indicating he sees "a hint of emerging green over the ridge."
Discounting a pair of one-time expenses a $2.3 million lease vacancy charge and an $800,000 write down of foreclosed properties Sun would have eked out a modest profit. And O'Brien believes the days of losing money may soon be a thing of the past.
"We're committed to being profitable in each quarter of 2015," he said during a conference call Monday to discuss quarterly results. "Our board expects that, our regulators expect that and our shareholders expect that."
O'Brien has some supporters who believe he can make good on his forecast. Ted Peters, a former chairman and CEO of Bryn Mawr Bank who manages the Bluestone Financial Institutions Fund, said in a statement Tuesday that he believes Sun which he described as one of Bluestone's "core positions" would hit its targets.
Sun's largest investor, private-equity financier Wilbur Ross, is similarly pleased, stating on Tuesday that he believes the heavy-lifting phase of Sun's turnaround is over.
O'Brien "can begin building the bank again and, based on everything he's accomplished, I believe he'll do that," said Ross, who owns roughly 24.4% of Sun's outstanding stock.
Returning to consistent profitability is critical to Sun because it would allow the company to reclaim its deferred-tax asset, an accounting construct that offsets tax expenses and pads the bottom line. Banks have to string together several quarters of profitability before they can put that asset back on the balance sheet.
It would be a game changer if Sun could reclaim a DTA in excess of $130 million by early 2016, said Mark Fitzgibbon, director of research at Sandler O'Neill. "This company was a disaster for a number of years," Fitzgibbon said. "It went through a litany of management teams and seemed to change business plans with the seasons."
Sun is targeting profitability by finally being able to play offense. Loan growth, a potent indicator of the company's recovery, is on an upswing, management declared during Monday's call. Sun originated $57 million in loans in the fourth quarter, or nearly six times what it generated a quarter earlier, and it has more than $400 million of excess liquidity at the ready.
"The strategy for 2014 of necessity was focused 80% on expenses [and] 20% on revenues," O'Brien said during the call. "In 2015, those positions switch.... Our primary objective is to originate new loans."
Sun's $1.5 billion loan portfolio could grow by 16% to 20% this year, O'Brien said.
For Sun's management team, any discussion on growth is a welcome change of pace after two quarters of cost cutting. The company went through a painful transition last year that included an exit from making mortgages and a retreat from asset-backed and health care lending. Sun also closed four branches and eliminated more than 240 jobs. The changes were ultimately aimed at reducing Sun's annual expenses by more than 40%, to a target of $75 million.
"We were compelled to address expenses aggressively since it was fundamentally impossible for the company to ever be profitable carrying a $130 million annual expense load," O'Brien said, adding that fourth-quarter non-interest expense totaled $20.6 million.
O'Brien on Monday seemed much more confident about the future, even though the last time Sun reported an annual profit was in 2008. It has lost roughly $350 million since then, including nearly $30 million last year.
The company still has a significant amount of restructuring this year. Sun has already agreed to sell seven branches in Cape May and Atlantic Counties to the $573 million-asset Sturdy Savings Bank of Stone Harbor, N.J. in a deal set to close by March 31.
O'Brien said he plans to do away with another dozen or so branches by the middle of the year, largely by closing or selling most of Sun's locations in southern New Jersey. That would leave the company with as few as 30 branches.
"I think branches will still be important, but certainly diminishing in their economic value," he said.