Taking social consciousness into account with bank M&A

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Robbie Gossett was ready for a change, both in his professional life and in his choice of bank, when he stumbled upon First Green Bank.

Gossett had recently gotten married. He and his wife were looking for a bank to deposit the cash they had received as wedding gifts. Although they had always used larger banks, it was 2010 and Gossett had become disillusioned with those institutions because of what he saw as their culpability for the financial crisis.

Then he happened to drive by a First Green branch in Mount Dora, Fla.

“I saw the sign, ‘First Green Bank,’ and I was very intrigued,” Gossett said. “If that’s what I think and hope it is, I need to check it out,” he said to himself.

Gossett stopped for a visit and learned about First Green’s mission to do right by the people and the planet, which aligned with his personal beliefs. Not only did he open an account, but he inquired about — and got — a job. Over the past eight years he has served in a few positions, including his current post as executive assistant to First Green’s founder, Ken LaRoe. His experience, he said, has lived up to the billing.

But Gossett’s time at the Orlando, Fla., bank seems to be coming to an end. In June, Seacoast Banking Corp. of Florida in Stuart agreed to buy the $731 million-asset First Green for $132.6 million in stock. LaRoe won’t be staying on with Seacoast, so Gossett doesn’t anticipate being there beyond the conversion, either.

Mergers can be fraught with risks for buyers, especially when it comes to retaining talent. Competitors salivate at a chance to snag disillusioned bankers who are perhaps unhappy with the change. That risk becomes greater when a deal involves a seller that is mission-oriented, such as First Green. Employees who joined the organization because they wanted to do some good may feel that opportunity slipping away.

“A smart company, if it is doing a significant transaction, really needs to look at everything,” said Alan Kaplan, founder and CEO of the executive search firm Kaplan Partners. “What will stay the same, what will we change. They will have to take a fresh look at all of that. They need to learn what is really valuable to both organizations and then cherry-pick the best.”

Interestingly, an M&A deal in a way spawned First Green. After LaRoe sold his first bank in 2006, he took a cross-country trip in a motor home with his wife, visiting national parks. During that time he read the book “Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman,” by Yvon Chouinard, a legendary rock climber, environmentalist and founder of Patagonia. Chouinard strived to make the outdoor clothing company a great place to work and an important voice for environmental activism.

“It was like, ‘If he can do this, I can do this in the banking business,’ ” LaRoe said. “I have to [do] something that gives back and doesn’t just make a bunch of money.”

That led to the founding of First Green in 2009. The bank provides discounted interest rates for commercial and residential projects that meet certain green building standards. Most branches offer solar-powered charging stations for electric vehicles, and all locations include waterless urinals, which “tend to generate comments,” LaRoe said.

First Green also lavishes its employees with benefits and has been named to American Banker’s Best Banks to Work For list numerous times. It provides employees with a living wage of $33,000 and matches 6% of employee contributions to 401(k) plans. Other perks are more lighthearted, such as an annual employee Easter-egg hunt.

All of this combines to make the bank a great place to work, Gossett, 43, said.

“I look at it as an issue of stewardship and that encapsulates everything — being a good steward of our shared planet, of our communities, of ourselves, of people’s money,” Gossett said.

To be sure, First Green did abandon one of its causes — holding deposits for medical marijuana firms — in order to find a seller.

It may be tempting for an acquirer to eliminate pricey benefits to trim costs, but that could do lasting damage, said Vincent Hui, who leads the mergers and acquisition and risk management practices for the consulting firm Cornerstone Advisors. Even cutting intangible benefits, like no longer letting employees volunteer on company time, could have a chilling effect.

“If you start cutting, it sends the message that you don’t value their values,” Hui said. “There might be some cost saves there, but the potential negative, long term, might be higher.”

A buyer should also look for ways to infuse a seller’s passion into its own operations, said Bob Wray, managing director at the investment bank Capital Corp. For instance, Seacoast could look for ways to incorporate some of First Green’s eco-friendly touches into its own branches.

“If the seller’s mission is totally out the door and gone, the buyer loses a lot of what they bought,” Wray said. “They have to figure out how to balance that.”

Seacoast declined to comment for this story. But Dennis Hudson III, its chairman and CEO, said during a June conference call to discuss the transaction that the $5.9 billion-asset company shared First Green’s social consciousness.

“Our mission as an organization is to help our customers improve their lives and help them build stronger communities,” Hudson said when asked about retaining customers who were drawn to First Green’s focus on environmental and social issues.

“That's at the heart of who Seacoast is,” Hudson added. “And I think that's entirely aligned with the heart of what you find at First Green with their focus on being socially responsible and the like. I think it's a great alignment and a great combination for our two firms.”

LaRoe said he believes that Seacoast’s executives have a similar commitment to employees, one that should help with the transition. For instance, Seacoast also offers a $31,000 living wage, he said.

Seacoast’s management seems to be trying to find ways to adopt some of First Green’s philosophy. During a meeting in July, Seacoast’s team spent several hours with LaRoe and Gossett discussing what they could do that would have an immediate impact.

LaRoe had recommended that Seacoast commit to ensuring all future offices they open meet certain pro-ecology guidelines. First Green’s solar energy loan program, which provides credit to borrowers to install solar panels on their homes or businesses, was also discussed. One Seacoast executive was enthusiastic about putting electric-car charging stations at its current branches, LaRoe said.

All of this has reassured LaRoe.

“My legacy won’t die,” he said. “It will actually get more leverage.”

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