ConnectOne Bancorp is giving strong hints that it will expand beyond northern New Jersey — and New York would be a natural place to go.
The company, formerly known as North Jersey Community Bancorp, said in a recent regulatory filing that it scrapped its old name because it now serves clients in New Jersey and New York. As a result, the old name became "too restrictive."
The filing, outlining the Englewood Cliffs, N.J., company's plans to raise $46 million through an initial public offering, says ConnectOne could use the funds to book more loans and "acquire other banks or financial institutions."
A graphic embedded in the filing is more suggestive, showing ConnectOne's eight New Jersey branches, and a huge arrow pointing to "New York City" and an outline of the Empire State Building.
To be sure, ConnectOne has never publicly expressed an interest in New York. Frank Sorrentino 3rd, the $929 million-asset company's chairman and chief executive, declined to comment because of rules that limit communication before a stock offering.
It might make sense for ConnectOne to diversify its geography by crossing the Hudson River, industry experts say. Nearly 94% of the company's $769 million in deposits come from its home turf in Bergen County, N.J.
New York "is a gigantic market and there's adequate room in that market" for ConnectOne, says Matthew Schultheis, an analyst at Boenning & Scattergood.
The path to Manhattan and the other four boroughs is far from a lock. In its filing, ConnectOne devoted more discussion to central New Jersey, adding that it expects "the bulk of our growth to continue to be organic."
As for acquisitions, the filing said that ConnectOne is not engaged in any negotiations, though it is "constantly evaluating opportunities to do so."
New York has been a magnet for small banks in nearby locales. Investors Bancorp (ISBC) in Short Hills, N.J., bought two New York institutions — Brooklyn Federal Bancorp and Marathon National Bank of New York — last year.
Northfield Bancorp (NFBK) in Avenel, N.J., also bought a Brooklyn thrift last year. Provident New York Bancorp (PBNY) in Montebello, N.Y., bought Gotham Bank of New York and has hired several lenders from New York banks in the past year.
"There's a lot of opportunity for commercial lending in New York," says Matt Kelley, an analyst at Sterne Agee. "You are seeing a collection of small community banks double down on their growth initiatives in the city."
ConnectOne could also benefit from efforts to gain deposits, whether it involves targeting depositors or buying highly liquid banks. At Dec. 31, its bank had a loan-to-deposit ratio of 110%.
Still, it is a tough time for a bank to go public. Last year, Capital Bank Financial (CBF) in Coral Gables, Fla. and National Bank Holdings (NBHC) in Greenwood, Colo., completed IPOs at prices that fell short of their expectations.
EverBank Financial (EVER) in Jacksonville, Fla., lowered its offering price twice last year before going public. Customers Bancorp (CUUU) in Wyomissing, Pa., withdrew its IPO last year and has no immediate plans to revisit an offering.
For a successful debut, banks must provide institutional investors with a compelling reason to buy in, Schultheis says. "If your story is that you've got a capital hole and need to fill it, then the answer is going to be 'no,'" he says.
Still, ConnectOne may have the kind of story that investors like to hear. Formed in 2005 with a branch in Englewood Cliffs, it bought the failed Citizens Community Bank in May 2009. A January 2010 offering of preferred stock raised $9 million.
Sorrentino played his cards right, luring investors who would later become clients, says Stewart McClure, president and chief executive of Somerset Hills Bancorp (SOMH) in Bernardsville, N.J., which recently agreed to sell to Lakeland Bancorp (LBAI) in Oak Ridge, N.J.
Sorrentino "attracted capital from the local communities he's in, from local business people," McClure says. "He was able to get them involved . . . as investors, but they're the same people you can turn to and have as your most important customers."
ConnectOne has also pinched talent from other banks. Last fall, it hired Williams Burns as chief financial officer, swiping him from Somerset Hills. In January, Sorrentino lured Aditya Kishore away from New York's Carver Bancorp (CARV) to become his chief information and operations officer.
A ConnectOne director, Steven Goldman, is a former commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Banking and Insurance.
For big investors, ConnectOne has another feather in its cap; its loan book has grown from $43 million in March 2005 to $849 million at the end of last year.
Institutional investors are most interested in profitable banks that need more capital to get "to the next level," Schultheis says.