Gregory A. Mitchell is enjoying his latest act.
Formerly the president and chief executive of the failed California National Bank in Los Angeles, Mitchell has reemerged as the leader of First PacTrust Bancorp Inc. in Chula Vista, Calif. His hiring accompanied $60 million in fresh capital for the already well capitalized and profitable thrift company.
Mitchell said in an interview Tuesday that the failures of banks like his former one have left a fragmented Southern California market that is fertile ground for growth, whether through acquisitions or by recruiting employees and customers with a preference for community banks.
"In this transaction, we capitalized the thrift in a way that allows it to flourish just through organic growth," he said. California National capsized after massive securities writedowns torpedoed its out-of-state parent.
"There are a lot of smaller institutions that maybe are not profitable or whose business plans are no longer viable in the new regulatory framework," he added. "Many of them will choose to partner with us. We don't have the capacity to take them all, but we hope four or five will join us on the journey."
Familiar faces have already signed on. This week Mitchell hired for key roles at First PacTrust four former executives from California National's growth years. He even recruited the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. receiver-in-charge in the seizure of his bank last year.
With new capital, an experienced team and a hunger for growth, First PacTrust joins a group of companies with deep pockets that are looking to consolidate in Southern California.
The group includes Grandpoint Capital Inc. in Los Angeles and Opus Bank in Redondo Beach. Still, observers said there is room for more buyers.
"It sounds like they are looking to become a strong force in Southern California," said Rick Levenson, the president of Western Financial Corp., a San Diego investment bank.
"Although we are seeing more of these sorts of deals, there is still a need," Levenson said. "There are plenty of banks that are scratched up and dented that are going to need an alternative."
That is particularly true in San Diego County, said Walter J. Mix 3rd, a managing director at LECG Global Financial Services and a former commissioner of the California Department of Financial Institutions. First PacTrust is one of the biggest banking companies left in the county since the failures of institutions such as Imperial Capital Bank and La Jolla Bank.
"The San Diego area is perceived as ripe for consolidation," Mix said. "There isn't a significant bank headquartered in that area." (First PacTrust is an $862 million-asset company.) "That is a potential advantage for them in that roll-up."
Recruiting Richard Herrin, the receiver-in-charge of the FDIC's strategic operations group, to be First PacTrust's chief administrative officer should help the company as it identifies potential targets.
"He will be a good guide for us as we navigate the arena of struggling banks," Mitchell said.
If the right opportunities come along, he said, he would like to expand to $5 billion of assets within five years.
The company also filed a registration statement last month to raise as much as $250 million in fresh capital.
Mitchell said that, though he has no immediate plan to raise more capital, the company wants to be prepared should a golden opportunity arise.
"We want to keep our powder dry," Mitchell said. "The shelf [registration] makes capital readily available should we need it."
Mitchell and his reunited colleagues are experienced builders. They expanded California National's asset size from $600 million in 2001 to $7.7 billion at the time of its failure in October 2009. It was the largest unit of FBOP Corp. in Oak Park, Ill., a multibank holding company that imploded after taking massive writedowns on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac securities. The FDIC sold FBOP's nine banks to U.S. Bancorp's U.S. Bank.
Mix said Mitchell has a good reputation and that regulators would not have approved him to lead another bank if they had linked California National's failure to his management.
"From what I know of the bank, they were conservative in their practices, which made the failure all the more unexpected," Mix said.
Mitchell is not only interested in acquisitions. First PacTrust is poised to grow to $2 billion of assets even if it sticks to an organic growth strategy, he said.
Customers and employees of failed banks are often unhappy, Mitchell said, particularly if their bank is bought by a larger bank. These customers and employees are First PacTrust's prime targets.
"If you are a community banker that likes 'Mayberry,' and you are suddenly thrust into a money-center bank, you miss that connection," Mitchell said. "If you look at the number of assets that have changed hands in the last two years, you can see how much opportunity there is."