John Kanas is remaking BankUnited in the image of the last company he ran, starting with a bold campaign to recruit bankers from rivals across Florida.
BankUnited is running full-page newspaper ads inviting "unhappy Florida bankers" to defect to the Coral Gables thrift, which regulators seized and then sold to Kanas' investor group six months ago. The ad provides a form resignation letter these recruits can cut out to give to their bosses, with the postscript, "I am sure you realize my customers will follow me."
"We've gotten over 3,000 responses in a couple days," Kanas said in an interview. "We have really touched a nerve."
Such tactics are familiar to those who watched Kanas during his years at the helm of North Fork Bancorp, the Melville, N.Y., company he sold to Capital One Financial Corp. in 2006.
"It is right from his playbook at North Fork," said Mark Fitzgibbon, the director of research at Sandler O'Neill & Partners LP. "John has always believed in paying up for talent and paying them, in some cases, much higher wages than other banks might. Economically, it has been a good trade for him."
Kanas also has dismantled the wholesale mortgage business that the previous BankUnited heavily relied on; from now on, it will only provide mortgages to existing customers. (North Fork, too, had an aversion to mortgages, at least until it acquired Greenpoint Financial Corp. in 2004.)
BankUnited's new focus is on commercial loans for small and midsized businesses, which was North Fork's bailiwick.
The thrift has even begun offering an old North Fork product, a small-business loan with a 24-hour response guarantee for applicants. Since introducing the product Sept. 1, the $11 billion-asset BankUnited has added a tidy $10 million in loans and $6 million in deposits.
And of course, North Fork was known for dealmaking, and the new BankUnited already has a handful of acquisition targets in mind. Kanas said he is looking at both operating banks and failed ones, but favors the latter. Any size bank would be a target, in Florida and contiguous states, he said.
The bank has plenty of buying power, with a total risk-based capital ratio of roughly 46%, he said. In May Kanas' investor group infused BankUnited with $900 million of capital.
"I'm trying to take pages of the old book that we had success with," Kanas said. "While it is a different market, we are finding that there is a little bit of what we did at North Fork that works equally well in South Florida."
Industry watchers said Kanas' style of banking, particularly rewarding bankers for bringing in deposits, is uncommon in Florida.
"One area, in particular, that we expect them to do very well is growing the deposit base," said Gerard Cassidy, an analyst at Royal Bank of Canada's RBC Capital Markets, who used to follow North Fork. "Many of the banks in Florida in the last five to seven years were very focused on growing the loan portfolio, not deposits. John Kanas' strategy — that worked very effectively at North Fork and did a great job for shareholders — was growing the deposit side of the balance sheet."
Gary D. Moss, the president and chief executive of the $73 million-asset Professional Bank in Coral Gables, a competitor, called BankUnited's ad campaign "ingenious."
"I'm sure a lot of people around here aren't happy, but I think it covers three areas with that one ad," he said. "The officers who are unhappy will know where to look for a job. Customers who are looking for a loan know they are lending. And if there is a small bank that wants to be purchased, they can put themselves up for sale with them."
Similarly, R. Van Bogan, the chairman and CEO of the $255 million-asset FBC Bancorp Inc. in Orlando, said BankUnited's "aggressive approach" did not bother him.
"It's a new bank, and it needs to get going," he said. "They need lenders, and there are a lot of bankers in the state that don't have jobs."
Still, Bogan, whose bank operates outside BankUnited's current market area, called the ads "ostentatious."
Kanas worked at North Fork for 36 years, including a decade as its chairman. In his time there, North Fork doubled in size, to $60 billion of assets, and Kanas won the respect of investors, analysts and regulators.
"He built an amazing company," Fitzgibbon said. "He was an innovator, in respect to acquisitions. And he sold the company at exactly the right time. Now he is doing something that is similar, but dissimilar, at what is arguably the most innovative time to do that."
Fitzgibbon said he interprets the ad campaign as a positive sign that BankUnited is ready to ramp up growth.
"They are trying to begin to play offense and capitalize on opportunities in Florida," he said. "I suspect that he is still doing some clean-up work on the existing BankUnited franchise and starting to look at other things. I would guess in 2010 they will be a consolidator in the market."
The new BankUnited faces the same challenge other Florida banks are contending with: the economy. "In the long run, for all of us to be successful, we need the economy to cooperate," Kanas said. "We need real estate values to stabilize and appreciate, and unemployment to abate."
But Kanas said he learned lessons at North Fork that he can apply now, including how to deal with fluctuations in real estate values. "I spent 36 years in one place, and I made my share of mistakes," he said. "Now I'm trying not to repeat them."
Kanas' team inherited plenty of bad loans from the previous management, which he said it is working out.
At the end of June, 26% of its loan portfolio was nonperforming. But much of it is covered by a loss-sharing agreement with the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.