For most bankers, leaving the number-two post at large community bank to run a tiny thrift would be a step down. For Andrew Samuel, it was a return to what he does best.

Samuel resigned his post as president of Susquehanna Bancshares in September, right as the $18 billion-asset company was negotiating to sell itself to BB&T. A month later, he agreed to become chief executive at Sunshine Bancorp, a $222 million-asset lender in Plant City, Fla.

Since then, Samuel has been using capital raised in Sunshine's recent second-step conversion to rapidly build the company's staff, adding directors and executives while hiring loan officers by the handful. He's also considering acquisitions to accelerate its growth.

By joining Sunrise, Samuel is betting that the ambitious playbook he followed to quickly two Pennsylvania banks will translate to Florida. He said developing companies, particularly those he calls values-based institutions that reflect his religious convictions, is his forte.

"I like to build companies, and we believe our strategy of growing organically by building branches and hiring teams of lenders, combined with compelling strategic acquisitions, will help us build something special here," Samuel said.

Beginning in the mid-1990s, he helped Waypoint Financial in Harrisburg, Pa., swell to $5.3 billion in assets. He became CEO shortly before the company's 2005 sale to Sovereign Bancorp.

After a brief stint as a regional CEO at Sovereign, he split off in late 2005 to found Graystone Financial in Lancaster, Pa. Aided by two deals, including a merger with Tower Bancorp, Graystone reached $2.7 billion in assets before selling to Susquehanna in 2012.

At Susquehanna in Lititz, Pa., Samuel was widely considered the heir apparent to CEO William Reuter. The company's sale to BB&T — announced in mid-November — would mean that Reuter's post would never become available.

Samuel, who was vague on whether the deal influenced his decision to leave, announced his departure on Sept. 16, a day after executives at Susquehanna and BB&T met to discuss how their business strategies might fit together, according to regulatory filings.

For Samuel, leaving when he did meant giving up a change-in-control bonus, or so-called golden parachute payment, according to regulatory filings. But he likely avoided being subject to a noncompete agreement that could have barred him from working in Florida, where BB&T has more than 300 branches.

"I'm not a maintainer; I'm a builder," Samuel said when asked about the timing of his departure. Samuel added that he and his wife "just felt that God was calling us to this opportunity to build a values-based company."

Samuel was put in touch with Sunshine by community bank investor Kenneth Lehman, an old friend and Graystone's co-founder, who had informally advised Sunshine on its conversion from a mutual thrift. Lehman thought Samuel and Sunshine's board might make a good fit because of their shared faith and Sunshine's desire to grow. Samuel joined Sunshine a month after leaving Susquehanna, replacing J. Floyd Hall, who had led the thrift for 28 years.

Lehman said he expects Sunshine to grow quickly, particularly if it is able to increase its stock price to where it has a strong currency for acquisitions. The stock is up around 2% from its initial offering in July.

"I guarantee this will not be a $200 million-asset bank in a year or two," Lehman said. "Florida is really ripe for consolidation, and this is a unique time to begin building a bank with a slug of capital — not a huge amount, but more than pretty much any" similarly sized bank in Florida.

Sunshine's conversion raised $42.3 million, and Samuel has been using the capital to build the company's staff. He added two directors with financial services expertise: William Pommerening, CEO of the bank consultancy RP Financial, and George Parmer, CEO of a real estate warranty firm and a director at Pennsylvania's Fulton Bank.

Next, Samuel hired new leaders for Sunshine's credit, loan and risk operations, along with at least a half-dozen senior-level employees for lending, electronic banking and operations. Next, the company shortened the name of its banking unit to Sunshine State Bank, from Sunshine State Federal Savings and Loan, and unveiled a new logo.

The business strategy is to focus on retail customers, nonprofits and family-owned businesses in Sunshine's core area between Tampa and Orlando, where Samuel expects to see substantial growth in the next several years. He said there is no template for how fast he plans to grow, but he believes that by building branches, getting lenders out on the street and making smart acquisitions he can build a "dominant Florida franchise," he said.

In the meantime, Samuel and his wife are settling in following the move down from Pennsylvania.

"It has been wonderful," Samuel said. "The community has been so embracing, and so many people have stepped out to help in any way they can. Plus, you can't beat the weather."

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