T. Stephen Johnson, a consultant who starts up banks in an age of consolidation, also breaks with banking practice in the way he describes his business.
"We are Banks 'R' Us," he said recently.
A 29-year veteran of banks or companies serving them, Mr. Johnson has evolved into a rare breed: a bank-starting entrepreneur.
Having been through a few up-and-down cycles, he has chosen this time to try to repopulate the landscape with community banks.
A self-made millionaire at the age of 49, Mr. Johnson has embarked on a series of ventures, including the formation of banking chains in Missouri, Virginia, and Florida.
But there is more to his wheeling and dealing.
Whether brokering the sale of a small bank in Tallassee, Ala.; starting a new bank in Fairfax, Va.; selling compensation and benefits packages to banks; running a $100 million fund that invests in banks; or founding and taking public an Internet bank, Mr. Johnson and a small group of associates have been all over the financial map in recent years.
Another bank investment fund is now in the works, as is a new concept in financial services designed for the Hispanic market.
"He is clearly an entrepreneur," said Interstate/Johnson Lane analyst John B. Moore Jr., who has known Mr. Johnson since 1986. That year, Mr. Johnson left BEI Consulting of Atlanta to form his own consulting firm.
As far afield as Mr. Johnson has gone, one way or another he has remained very much in, or of, banking.
Mr. Johnson is an idea man who also draws on numerous business contacts to pull together needed capital. He leaves day-to-day management tasks to others, including his wife, Mary, who is controller for his string of companies.
"Someone was asking me the other day what my job was, and I said it is to come up with one good idea a year," Mr. Johnson said in a recent interview. "Nobody enjoys what they do more than I do, starting things and leaving them for other people to run."
A former executive at two sizable regional banking companies-SunTrust here and SouthTrust in Birmingham, Ala.-Mr. Johnson was well schooled in the fundamentals when he moved into the consulting world in the early 1980s.
After founding T. Stephen Johnson & Associates here in 1986, Mr. Johnson quickly began brokering bank acquisitions and starting up banks. His company has launched more than 100 de novos from New York to Florida.
"Steve has been a big influence on the purchase and sale of small institutions," said Robert McCoy, chief financial officer of Wachovia Corp., Winston-Salem, N.C.
Mr. Johnson has consulted with Wachovia on many different matters, Mr. McCoy said. "He has been a good sounding board for acquisition opportunities," for example.
One of Mr. Johnson's most active clients on the acquisition front has been SouthTrust Corp., with which Mr. Johnson worked on many of its several dozen acquisitions in the last 10 years.
SouthTrust chief financial officer Alfred Yother said Mr. Johnson's insight into banking and his ability to "think outside the box" makes him a valuable resource.
"Steve sees value where other people don't see anything," said Mr. Yother. "He just never sits still, always looking for a new angle. That's how you make money, by getting there first."
In 1991, when the economy and his deal flow last headed south, Mr. Johnson decided it was time to diversify.
His first new venture was Bank Assets Inc., which designs and manages compensation and benefits programs for financial institutions.
In 1995, Mr. Johnson began a fund to invest in southeastern financial institutions, seeing opportunity in banks' relatively low price-earnings multiples at the time. The $100 million fund, primarily backed by European investors, liquidated its holdings in February with average annual returns near 40%, said Mr. Johnson.
He is now soliciting investors for the second fund.
A consulting assignment for Security First Network Bank of Atlanta, the first Internet-only bank, led Mr. Johnson to develop a branchless competitor in Atlanta, NetBank.
NetBank went public in 1997 and this year began spreading its word with an ad campaign. It has thus far attracted 12,000 accounts and deposits of $240 million, and it boasts of being the first profitable operation of its kind.
Mr. Johnson, who holds about $12 million of NetBank stock, said the company's performance is on target with projections. But the regulators took some persuading.
"You've never lived till you're sitting in the (Office of Thrift Supervision) in Washington, trying to get approval for your charter on the day Security First announced they'd lost $7 million," Mr. Johnson recalled. "We had a lot of explaining to do. But the OTS listened to our story and gave us a charter."
Mr. Johnson's most recent brainchild is aimed at capturing the "unbanked"-Hispanics and other minority group memebrs who frequent check- cashers instead of banks. Using a combination of direct deposit, debit cards, automated teller machines, and an "800" number, Mr. Johnson said, he can capture significant business with little infrastructure.
The idea is to seek out the cooperation and endorsement of employers, such as the chicken plant in Hall County, Ga., that has agreed to let Mr. Johnson's company present his idea to its 4,000 employees.
Mr. Johnson does not intend to charter this enterprise, Directo Inc., as a bank. He defines it as a marketing and management company that would franchise the program to banks nationwide.
He said he envisions not only capturing deposits but also introducing a variety of banking products as the new customers learn to trust and value the banking system.
Edward J. Sebastian, chairman and chief executive officer of Resource Bancshares Mortgage Group of Columbia, S.C., said Mr. Johnson's dealmaking skills appeal to aggressive investors. Mr. Sebastian is one of them, having invested in some of Mr. Johnson's ventures and served as liaison to a group of potential Directo investors.
Describing Mr. Johnson as "shrewd and tenacious," Mr. Sebastian said he seems to like the excitement of start-ups and dealmaking, as opposed to administering operations.
True, said Mr. Johnson, who relies on a cadre of experienced bankers to make another of his current ventures fly: a series of statewide community banks backed by abundant capital and led by people fresh from stints at major regional institutions.
Mr. Johnson is farthest down this road in Florida, aiming to take advantage of customer turmoil in mergers' wake, especially NationsBank Corp.'s big acquisition of Barnett Banks Inc. this year.
Mr. Johnson hired Charles E. Hughes Jr., SouthTrust's Florida president, to run the new Florida Banks Inc. With $40 million of capital raised in a public offering in July, the company is expanding rapidly. It has offices in Tampa and Jacksonville and is to open one in Gainesville Dec. 1. The company expects to have $700 million of assets within three years, said Mr. Hughes.
Mr. Johnson is taking the same tack in the St. Louis area, where NationsBank bought Boatmen's Bancshares in 1997. He has hired Richard Jensen, the former president of Boatmen's St. Louis bank, to run the company.
To do the same in Virginia, Mr. Johnson said, he is near an agreement to hire a senior executive from a Richmond-based banking company that was recently acquired. Louisiana, where Bank One Corp. recently bought First Commerce Corp., is another state he is eyeing.
If there is an overriding theme to these various ventures, it is Mr. Johnson's belief that the well-worn paths banks have traditionally trod are not the only avenues to success.
He perceives a widespread assumption "that everybody is going to be banked in the same way one day," said Mr. Johnson. "I don't believe it."