The stock of FirstBank Puerto Rico has been on a tear in the past five years, proving that it pays to buy where others fear to tread.

Since 1990, the San Juan-based bank's stock has appreciated a whopping 356%, according to a recent USA Today survey, which ranked the nation's top New York Stock Exchange stocks over a five- year period.

The $2.2 billion-asset FirstBank turned up 37th on the newspaper's list. It was the best-performing bank stock on the list of 100 companies, followed up by Metropolitan Financial Corp. of Minneapolis at No. 43 and NBB Bancorp of New Bedford, Mass., at No. 81. The stock of those two companies appreciated 340% and 241%, respectively.

No. 1 on the list was Best Buy Inc., up 1,462%.

FirstBank shares were trading at about $17 on Wednesday, down from a 52- week high of $19.25. Five years ago the stock was trading at a dismal $2.125 after the company was socked by bad real estate loans and lost $17.7 million.

"Our prospects for the near future are very good," said Annie Astor, FirstBank's chief financial officer.

What sent the stock soaring?

For one, a management restructuring that brought in a new president who revamped FirstBank's lending strategy. Now, the bank makes consumer, auto, credit card, and personal loans, and sparingly gets involved with commercial real estate credits, Ms. Astor said.

As a result, its performance has improved dramatically. FirstBank has reported record earnings three years straight. Last year, it earned $30.6 million, up nearly 40% from a year ago. It's return on assets was 1.53% and return on equity 29.07%.

The company has cleaned up its loan portfolio after underwriting poor commercial real estate loans in the mid-1980s. Nonperformers have been trimmed to $61.6 million from a peak of $104.4 million in 1991. The same time, the company's reserve coverage has shot up to 60.7%, compared with a low of 27.7% in 1991.

Net interest margins have increased to 5.38%, up from 4.81% a year ago, and 4.04% in 1992.

While the bank is flush with profits, it isn't spending wildly. FirstBank's operating efficiency ratio - expenses as a percentage of revenue - has dropped to 49.8% from 54.9% last year and 62.8% in 1992.

"We are doing more with less," Ms. Astor said.

Ms. Astor said FirstBank officials have recently begun meeting with analysts in the hopes of prompting more interest in the company.

"A lot of people don't know us," she said.

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