Wilbur Ross' appointment as Commerce secretary will leave a void in the board room at Sun Bancorp, but his firm's investment in the Mt. Laurel, N.J., company will likely stay in place.
WL Ross & Co., the investment firm Ross founded in 1999, is expected to maintain its 23% stake in Sun after its namesake departs for Washington, said Thomas O'Brien, the $2.2 billion-asset Sun's president and chief executive. WL Ross is also expected to designate a board successor for Ross. As part of the firm's 2010 investment, it is entitled to have a board representative as long as it owns at least 7.5% of Sun's stock.
Efforts to reach Ross were unsuccessful.
Still, the investor will be a tough act to follow.
"There's only one Wilbur Ross," O'Brien said in an interview, though he noted the firm has a very deep bench.
"His advice, insight and counsel have been invaluable," O'Brien said, adding that Ross, despite his heavyweight status in the financial world, has always been a pleasant, down-to-earth colleague who shouldered his share of the burden without any complaint.
"He's a towering figure by reputation, but he's not a high-maintenance guy," O'Brien said. "He been to every board and shareholder meeting. He isn't someone who mails it in."
Sun, which lost millions of dollars in 2013 and 2014, has closed in on a remarkable turnaround, backed by capital from WL Ross. The company, which has had seven consecutive profitable quarters, earned $1.6 million in the third quarter.
O'Brien accomplished the turnaround by, among other things, shuttering the company's mortgage unit and unloading 11 branches. Ross questioned parts of the plan, but O'Brien said the billionaire was never disagreeable and in the end let the CEO do his job.
Ross is "unusually calm, thoughtful and patient," added O'Brien, who joined Sun as a consultant in April 2014 and became president and CEO three months later. "He's no flamethrower. He's never once lost his composure, and we've been through some pretty trying circumstances."
WL Ross has been an active community bank investor since the financial crisis. In addition to its Sun, the firm has owned stakes in Talmer Bancorp in Troy, Mich., which was recently sold to Chemical Financial; Cascade Bancorp in Bend, Ore., which is being sold to First Interstate BancSystem; and BankUnited in Miami Lakes, Fla. The firm has pared back or exited many of those holdings in recent years.
Ross also left an impression at BankUnited, which he helped resurrect when it failed in 2009. John Kanas, who became the bank's CEO at that time, said in an interview that Ross "was always the first in the room to get the main point."
"We did a lot of complicated things together," Kanas said, adding that the investor is a "brilliant choice" to run the Commerce Department. "Wilbur's mind is as sharp as a tack."