Lamar Ball Jr. is a community bank owner's dream come true. He has a billionaire's backing, leaves acquired banks alone after he buys the stock, and confidently pays cash.
For the last year, Mr. Ball has used billionaire Carl Pohlad's money to buy nine north Texas banks. The silver-haired banker is building the '90s version of the Texas super community bank: a suburban, home grown network of locally run community banks without the large, city based lead bank. A kind of "First City Lite."
If all goes as planned - and there's no reason to think it won't - Mr. Ball and his Denton-based First Bancorp will have strung together a multi-billion-dollar network of community banks in Texas that will, under one owner, be far more valuable to a potential acquirer than they were by themselves.
"We do deals that most larger organizations just cannot do efficiently," Mr. Ball said from his car phone, the medium of many of his conversations. "The banks we're buying are just too small to convert to [the big banks'] operation. But by the same token we are buying the No. 1 or 2 of 3 player in these communities."
Four Down, More Under Way
First Bancorp closed its first acquisition in the first quarter of 1993. Since then, CEO Ball has bought three more and has five under agreement. He said there's three more deals in the works. By the end of the year, he predicts the company will have $1 billion in assets.
All of the banks are within an hour's drive of Dallas. The smallest had just $30 million in assets. Most of the deals came down from a simple phone call or a friendly knock on the door from Mr. Ball. None of the banks is in the overbanked city.
Mr. Ball is not a community banker per se; he's a number cruncher who can put together deals and woo' small town boards of directors. His kind will increasingly be found at community banking organizations in regions with too many small banks, such as Texas and the Midwest.
"He's very confident;" said Bill Strunk, a Houston bank consultant who has followed Mr. Ball's independent banking career since 1989. "He can talk the acquisition language to country bankers."
Originally from Tennessee, Mr. Ball spent the first 15 years of his career at the old Citizens and Southern National Bank in Atlanta and Macon. In 1977, he co-founded the well-known consulting firm Bank Earnings Inc., or BEI, where he pioneered the numbers-based banking strategy that he pursued for the rest of his career.
But consulting, he said, "wasn't what I was suited for." In 1979, he went to Houston to be an officer at Bank of the Southwest, one of the two banks that would make up MCorp. He rose to become a group chairman in Dallas, running all the retail business in five Texas regions.
In January 1988, getting the entrepreneurial bug and having some well-founded worries about MCorp (it failed in 1990), he became chief executive of an investment group that went looking for small banks to buy in the southwest.
Begins Search for Capital
In 1989, he found his first target: First Bancorp in Denton, a deeply troubled $300 million bank in a sleepy city north of Dallas. The board asked him to try and turn it around. Only problem was, he needed $20 million to recapitalize it. He could only raise $3 million from Texas investors, and began searching for capital elsewhere. "People in Texas wouldn't put their money in Fort Knox in 1989," he said.
He found it in Minneapolis in the form of Carl Pohlad, the billionaire Owner of the Minnesota Twins who's amassed a multibillion-dollar network of community banks in the upper Midwest.
"It was really just a cold call," said Mr. Ball of his first meeting with Mr, Pohlad. "I was visiting a friend in Minneapolis and we basically knocked on his door. He liked the idea and within 30 minutes we had a handshake."
Mr. Pohlad had had his eye on Texas for a while, having tried and failed to buy two larger banks in the state. When Mr. Ball took over First Bancorp in October 1990, he did it with a $17 million check from Mr. Pohlad.
Mr. Pohlad couldn't be reached for this story.
First Bancorp, with First State Bank-Denton its only asset, had $287 million in 1990 and took an $11 million loss that year as Mr. Ball cleaned up the loan mess.
According to consultant Mr. Strunk, Mr. Ball all along just wanted to buy banks, and with the money behind him had all the tools necessary.
All The Right Moves
"There are just too many banks in Texas and small town bankers know it," Mr. Strunk, who consults community banks on M&A issues, said. "He's sophisticated, he's savvy, and he knows how to talk to a community bank board. He says all the right things. And he's paying cash. With these stockholders invested for 20 or more years, he gives them a price in cash and their heads spin."
Mr. Ball, a father of five, said half jokingly that he "dreams about buying banks" in his spare time.
He's the kind of southern banker that calls you "buddy" even though he hardly knows you. He has a clear vision - based on his numbers - of what kind of banking company he wants to run. He called Mr. Pohlad, 78 and one of the richest people in America, "one of the neatest people in the world."
Mr. Ball, like Mr. Pohlad above him, pretty much leaves the banks alone after he buys them. He's not in a rush to garner efficiencies of scale out of his burgeoning empire.
"We're keeping all the back offices intact for now," he said. "Down the road we will consolidate some. We don't want to focus inwardly right now. When you get everybody in the bank focused on the backroom, you lose momentum."