The way Dominic Ng tells it, a decision to spend $273 million to buy MetroCorp Bancshares (MCBI) in Houston was the easiest he has ever made.
"There is always a right time, place and moment," says Ng, chairman and chief executive of East West Bancorp (EWBC) in Pasadena, Calif. "From the minute they called, it didn't take long. It took a few weeks to put the deal together. It came together very quickly."
Ironically, Ng was complaining as recently as five months ago that the merger-and-acquisition market had become virtually stagnant, noting that it had been more than two years since his company had completed a deal.
Certainly, from the perspective of the $23 billion-asset East West, it is easy to see why $1.6 billion-asset MetroCorp is so attractive. The company's nine Houston and three Dallas branches offices will give East West a presence in Texas that would have taken Ng years to build organically. Currently, East West operates a single branch in Houston.
"This is easier than adding one branch at a time," Ng says. "We can't wait five years to expand in Texas."
East West expects to complete the acquisition in the first quarter. The deal will raise the company's profile in Texas and permit senior management to focus more attention on the state's business opportunities.
"This is a good start," Ng says. "With this base, it makes sense for us to pay attention to Texas. With one branch, it was hard" to justify committing a lot of resources.
Created in 1972, East West has been an active acquirer since the late 1990s, but all of its whole bank deals eight since 1999 involved banks in California. In June 2010, East West bought the assets and deposits of the failed Washington First International Bank in Seattle.
MetroCorp's history has been more uneven. Like many banks, it struggled with bad loans during the recession and, while its ratio of nonperforming assets to total assets has steadily improved since 2011, it still hovers near 2%.
MetroCorp entered Southern California in 2005 by purchasing a small San Diego bank. MetroCorp pursued other opportunities, but none materialized. In 2009, the company entered into a formal agreement with the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency requiring it to form a compliance committee and improve lending practices. That agreement was lifted In June.
East West is a "bridge bank" that serves entrepreneurs and businesses in the United States and China, Ng says. Thus, an increasing current of trade and investment flowing between China and Texas has not escaped his attention. Houston and Dallas are home to growing Chinese communities, and Chinese investment in Texas is also growing, Ng says.
Chinese firms have invested nearly $5 billion in Texas over the past 13 years, mainly in energy, according to Rhodium Group, a New York research firm. On the flip side, annual exports from Texas to China more than tripled over the past decade, growing from $3.1 billion in 2003 to $10.1 billion last year, based on research from the US-China Business Council in Washington.
"Texas has been a gateway between the United States and China and it is a huge recipient of Chinese investment," says Marc Ross, a spokesman for the US-China Business Council.
MetroCorp, the parent of MetroBank, was also working to increase its slice of the China-U.S. trade pie. The company had opened representative offices in the Chinese cities of Xiamen and Chongqing to "cultivate business relationships with customers that have the potential of expanding their" U.S. business, according to its 2012 annual report.
George Lee, MetroCorp's chairman, president and CEO, did not return phone calls seeking comment. In a press release issued late Wednesday, Lee said MetroCorp's customers would benefit from the "balance sheet, scale and expertise" of merging with East West.
East West is the latest Asian-American bank to cross the country in search of the right deal.
In recent months, BBCN Bancorp (BBCN) has agreed to buy Foster Bankshares in Chicago and Pacific International in Seattle in the past year. Wilshire Bancorp (WIBC) has an agreement to buy BankAsiana in Palisades Park, N.J.
Royal Business Bank in Los Angeles has also expressed an interest in buying banks in other markets.
Two-thirds of East West's consideration for MetroCorp will involve stock. The price tag works out to about $14.60 for each MetroCorp share, and 1.72 times the seller's tangible equity.
The fact that most MetroCorp shareholders want stock, rather than cash demonstrates they have "strong confidence in East West's future," Ng says.