Georgia is slowly emerging as a hotbed of M&A after suffering for years after the financial crisis.
In several recent deals, Southeastern banks have paid up to enter or expand in the state, particularly around Atlanta. Those deals and their relatively high premiums suggest that buyers are again seeing promise in Georgia, which could help revive the state's dormant consolidation market.
Renasant in Tupelo, Miss., is the latest bank to do a deal in Georgia, agreeing Tuesday to buy Heritage Financial Group in Albany, which would mark the company's entry into the southern part of the state.
The acquisition will also add bankers who know the Atlanta market well. Such additions are critical for Renasant, which has had a presence around the city since its 2010 purchase of the failed Crescent Bank.
Atlanta has "been really good to us, and we've seen strong loan growth particularly in the business-banking space," Robin McGraw, Renasant's president and chief executive, said in an interview. "There's been a strong resurgence in the Atlanta market. All things aside, Atlanta is the largest market in the south, and this is a good opportunity for us to expand there."
Renasant's announcement comes on the heels of moves by Iberiabank Corp. in Lafayette, La., and ServisFirst Bancshares in Birmingham, Ala., to enter Atlanta. Iberiabank agreed on Monday to buy the $1 billion-asset Georgia Commerce Bancshares, and ServisFirst announced in late October that it would acquire the $224 million-asset Metro Bancshares.
These deals are signs of life in a state that had seen very little traditional M&A. Dealmaking in the Southeast has picked up in the last few years, with Florida emerging as a target for out-of-state buyers and consolidation taking place among banks in North Carolina. Still, Georgia had largely lagged far behind.
That's not surprising, given the depth of the state's banking crisis after the housing bubble burst. After years of using high-cost funding to make risky loans, Georgia's banks suffered a harsh correction; 88 banks in the state have failed since 2008, according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.
Now we may finally be seeing a revival, industry observers say.
"Georgia is rebounding nicely after being the Chernobyl of community banking during the crisis," said Lee Bradley, senior managing director of Community Capital Advisors in Duluth, Ga. "There's definitely an improvement in Atlanta. Real estate prices are back up and homes are being built. The core fundamentals of the banks have also improved quite a bit."
This improvement has been reflected in deal pricing. The average premium to tangible book value for Georgia sellers has been 157% this year, compared to 139% for the nation as a whole, according to data from Keefe, Bruyette & Woods.
Renasant's $264 million deal for the $1.8 billion-asset Heritage has a 172% premium to tangible book, while ServiceFirst's purchase of Metro is at 154%.
Iberiabank plans to pay $195 million for Georgia Commerce, which, at 209%, would be the highest premium for any deal in the state this year. Iberiabank CEO Daryl Byrd said he was attracted by Atlanta's strong recovery, and especially the opportunities for commercial lending.
"Atlanta has always been a vibrant small-business, middle-market commercial and large corporate market, with a lot of public companies headquartered here," Byrd said during a conference call Monday to discuss Iberia's deal. "It had some tough years through the crisis from a real estate perspective, but I would expect this market to be a very strong growth engine for our company for the foreseeable future."
Atlanta's economic performance has been mixed since the crisis, but lending has been robust and, overall, there are reasons for optimism. The area's population grew rapidly during the recession, and, after shedding jobs in the downturn, employment has been growing faster than in the overall economy. Growth has translated into "fierce" loan competition among banks in the Atlanta district, the Federal Reserve Board said this month.
Renasant plans to use the low-cost deposits Heritage has in the rural areas south of Atlanta to support lending in the city, along with other metropolitan areas it serves in Tennessee and Alabama. That follows a game plan Renasant has employed successfully in other markets, McGraw said
"We've always felt that markets that are more deposit driven compliment the markets that are more loan oriented," McGraw said. "So we've tried to leverage the lower-cost deposits into the cities. The same thing holds true here."
Atlanta is not the only prize for Renasant in the deal, however. Heritage also has branches in many of Georgia's second-tier markets, like Macon and Valdosta, that, while not as demographically appealing as Atlanta, are still wealthier and faster-growing than the average in the Southeast. It also has a presence in many college towns, which appealed to Renasant.
"There's good demographics in several of the markets we've picked up from Heritage, not only in Atlanta," Kevin Chapman, Renasant's chief financial officer, said in an interview.
It remains to be seen whether the momentum for Georgia M&A continues, and, if so, what shape the market takes. Bradley said he expects Georgia to follow a path like Florida, where the largest activity will be spurred by out-of-state buyers.
"I've been telling community banks with say $150 million to $200 million in assets to find another bank about their size to merge with so they can be a better acquisition candidate to out-of-state buyers," he said.
Bradley said he advised Brookhaven Bank last year before it negotiated a sale to Georgia Commerce Bancshares, which IberiaBank now plans to buy. Brookhaven ultimately hired Banks Street Partners in Atlanta as its financial adviser and investment bank for the sale, while Keefe, Bruyette & Woods advised Georgia Commerce.
The Brookhaven-Georgia Commerce deal was for cash or stock, and Bradley said he recommended shareholders to take stock in the event of a sale.
"I told them to take stock because I thought Georgia Commerce would be a seller at some point," he said. "I had no idea it would go this quick, though. I think we are going to see a lot more deals like this."
Robert Barba contributed to this report.
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Corrected December 15, 2014 at 1:21PM: An earlier version of this article was unclear about the financial adviser for Brookhaven Bank's sale to Georgia Commerce Bancshares. Banks Street Partners was Brookhaven's investment bank. Community Capital Advisors provided advice to Brookhaven before it hired Banks Street.