Rival South Florida banks team up to go after bigger fish

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A desire for scale prompted Professional Holding in Coral Gables, Fla., to pursue a merger.

A shared history led the $890 billion-asset company to its deal to buy Marquis Bank, which is also based in Coral Gables.

Marquis, which opened in August 2007, and Professional, which debuted 13 months later, immediately had to deal with the fallout from the financial crisis in South Florida. That gave Dan Sheehan, Professional's chairman and CEO, and Javier Holt, his counterpart at the $680 million-asset Marquis, plenty to discuss when they met in 2014.

“We’ve simultaneously gone through the various growth stages and growing pains in the same market,” Sheehan said. "I have thought highly of the group and what they’ve done over the years.”

What began as professional chitchat eventually turned into a serious talk about a potential merger.

Professional has been in a growth mode across South Florida throughout this year. It raised $20 million in January before opening branches in Miami and Boca Raton and loan production offices in Doral and Wellington. The bank's assets increased by 22% in the first six months of 2019.

Professional’s Wellington office is being led by Lee Frankhouser, a former president of Floridian Community Bank, which sold to Weston, Fla.-based FCB Financial Holdings in 2018. FCB was sold last year to Synovus Financial in Columbus, Ga.

“We’ve known Lee for several years and we’re fortunate to have him on our team,” Sheehan said. “When opportunities arise … you either act or don’t act both of which have consequences." The opportunity to hire Frankhouser "was there and wanted to move forward with him on the team.

For Sheehan, the key to the Marquis deal lies in the added scale it creates, which should help Professional take advantage of Florida's rapid growth and leverage the technology that’s starting to flow from the digital innovation center the bank launched in Cleveland in December.

Professional's growth strategy has also drawn outsize attention after two recent articles earlier this year detailed a loan the bank made to President Trump. While the bank was mum on how Trump became a borrower, management acknowledged that they had been making a more concerted push for affluent clients.

Sheehan's goal of tapping more deeply into Florida's growth appears to be "spot on," said Alex Sanchez, CEO of the Florida Bankers Association, noting that people from higher-tax states in the Northeast and Midwest are flocking to Florida at a rate of nearly 1,000 a day.

“We’re seeing growth all over, but South Florida is certainly getting its fair share,” Sanchez said.

The movement of money, people and businesses is having a marked effect on banking activity. Consolidation has picked up, and Sanchez said he’s hopeful the state, which has already three de novos open since 2017, will see more activity in coming months.

"I think, hopefully, the market will take care of that,” Sanchez said.

For Sheehan, more scale will give Professional a better shot to harvest what he termed “low-hanging fruit” resulting from Florida’s recent growth. Through the first six months of 2019, Professional's mortgages increased 39% from a year earlier to $324.2 million; commercial-and-industrial loans increased 71% to $89.3 million and deposits increased by 21% to $758 million.

Sheehan is optimistic that a bigger bank can generate even better results.

“We’re seeing a tremendous in-migration of people and capital to South Florida,” he said.

Technology initiatives being spearheaded by its new digital innovation center comprise another reason behind Professional’s expansion drive. Last month, the five-branch bank began using artificial-intelligence-driven software to speed the pace of business lending workflows and decisions.

Professional has also rolled out an Apple Watch app, along with a person-to-person payment engine that can transfer funds instantly to any individual with a debit card.

“Being able to spread those technologies over a broader platform makes them more valuable,” Sheehan said. “You can have the coolest technology in the world, but it won’t be effective if only a few hundred people are using it.”

The deal for Marquis marks Professional's first foray into M&A since a bid for First City Bank of Commerce fell through in 2016.

Sheehan doesn't foresee any difficulties closing this transaction, characterizing it as an in-market deal with an easy-to-understand rationale. The banks actually share a number of important clients, so combining will make that group “stickier.”

“This is a good fit,” Sheehan said.

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