If your prized chief executive goes missing in Florida, check with CenterState Bank.

CenterState, of Winter Haven, Fla., acquired its sixth failed bank Friday, making it one of the state's most aggressive participants in government-assisted deals in recent years. However, the hallmark of its chief executive, John Corbett, is what he does before he gets the bank — hire the executive to run it.

CenterState looks for banks that "are in the markets we were in or the markets that we could attract CEO-level talent in advance of the acquisition," says Corbett, who is also executive vice president of CenterState's $2.7 billion-asset parent company.

Case in point: CenterState on Friday acquired First Guaranty Bank and Trust Co. of Jacksonville from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. It put Gilbert Pomar, the former head of a rival bank, in charge. Seven months ago, CenterState grabbed Pomar, the founder, president and chief executive of The Jacksonville Bank. The move was surprising since Pomar was in the midst of closing a private equity-backed deal to acquire another bank. But Pomar saw leaving for CenterState as the more attractive opportunity.

"They're that company that's going to be a survivor and a thriver," says Pomar, CenterState's Northeast Florida market president. "They have the right size and the right strategy, and they've made a commitment to Jacksonville."

It is likely hard to deny joining the only homegrown Florida bank that has added $1.2 billion of assets through acquiring six failed banks, one open bank and four Toronto-Dominion Bank branches in the last three years.

CenterState "thinks about banking in smaller markets the right way … they want to be where customers are and where they can have an advantage over markets where there is hyper competition," said Brett Scheiner, analyst at FBR Capital Markets & Co. "What's exciting about CenterState's franchise is that for the most part, they go where the fish are and not where all the fishermen are."

Pomar is actually the third community bank CEO that Corbett has hired before entering a market where he is eyeing a failed bank. Corbett also brought on John Williams, the former CEO of Riverside National Bank in Ft. Pierce, who now oversees the Okeechobee market; and Andy Beindorf, the former president of Indian River State Bank, now overseeing CenterState's south region in Vero Beach and Port St. Lucie.

Corbett's studying the Gainesville market as well as further expansion in the downtown areas of Orlando and Tampa.

CenterState's correspondent banking franchise has been a key to attracting top executives, Corbett says. The company started its correspondent business in 2008 and now has more than 560 banking clients throughout the Southeast.

"We travel, we have conferences, we really get to know these bankers," Corbett says. "It's a great opportunity for us to share our values and forge friendships."

Corbett knew Pomar at First Union National Bank, when their roles were reversed 20 years ago.

"I was a trainee while he was a commercial banking manager with First Union in Jacksonville," Corbett says. "All the trainees looked up to Gil [Pomar]. He was the one who I wanted to be when I grew up."

Sure, Corbett acknowledges persuading top executives to leave their bank is a risk since there's no guarantee he will win the bid on a failed bank in that market. The company lost its bid on First Peoples Bank in Port St. Lucie, which was intended for Beindorf's team. The company instead started two branches in the area.

"Sometimes we have won and sometimes we haven't," he said. "It goes back to the philosophy of our business and we always build banks around the people."

Corbett often targets smaller, older banks; sometimes he retains longtime managers, even if the banks failed under their watch, because of their roots in the community.

"None of the banks we bought were banks that started in the boom, and we've seen in every case high levels of core deposit retention growth," he says.

In the case with the 65-year-old First Guaranty, Corbett also asked its founding family and leaders — a father-and-son team, Hickory Fant and Jay Fant — to stay on despite its failure. He even asked them to help lead CenterState's first meeting with First Guaranty's employees Sunday.

"They made things so much more enjoyable," Corbett said. "To think that the employees and customers are there for any other reason than the Fants is a pretty naive approach."

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