A dramatic shift in the banking landscape and an economy that keeps chugging along seem to be spurring a plan for a new bank in Birmingham, Ala.
A group with ties to First Partners Bank, a Birmingham institution that was recently bought by Progress Bank, has applied with regulators to form CommerceOne Bank. The planned institution, which would be the first bank to open in Alabama since 2007, is expected to focus on commercial lending and high-end customer service.
Birmingham has long been viewed as a potential market for a new bank, though increased startup costs, capital requirements and heightened regulation had tempered enthusiasm nationwide for de novos.
The city, once a virtual oligopoly made up of four regional banks, offers a large pool of bankers to recruit. And there is opportunity given the relatively fragmented market that emerged after a number of large mergers.
Regions Financial, which acquired rival AmSouth Bancorp. in 2006, is the last one that still calls the city home. Wachovia, now part of Wells Fargo, bought SouthTrust in 2004, while BBVA snagged Compass Bancshares three years later. BBVA, Regions and Wells hold about 60% of Birmingham’s deposits, according to data from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.
“We have an awful lot of strong banking talent in this city,” said Steven Reider, president of Bancography, a marketing and branch-planning adviser in Birmingham. “When mergers happen, it tends to make a lot of bankers available, looking for something a little bit different to do.”
Most of the city’s younger banks were built by people who cut their teeth at one of the four regional banks, Reider said. Those institutions, which include ServisFirst Bancshares, National Bank of Commerce, Progress and Oakworth Capital Bank, are taking advantage of local talent to gain market share.
“That’s where you really will see a lot of growth,” said Trabo Reed, deputy superintendent for Alabama’s banking department. “The next wave of highly successful Alabama banks will come from that group in the $1 billion to $6 billion range.”
CommerceOne would be entering a competitive market, so the de novo’s management team will have to rely heavily on prior relationships to gain traction, said Will Brackett, a senior vice president at Bank Street Partners, an investment bank that advised First Partners on its sale to Progress.
Another strategy could involve targeting a niche to differentiate from existing banks, industry experts said. While challenging, it is possible for a new bank to make a mark in a city such as Birmingham.
“I certainly wouldn’t consider it implausible that we have the ability to support one more community focused, commercially oriented banking institution,” Reider said.
Alabama is a good market for expansion-minded banks, Reed said. Historically a manufacturing city, Birmingham has benefited from growth in the health care and auto industries. Honda employs 4,800 people in the area, while Mercedes-Benz has a work force of 3,500, based on 2016 data from the Birmingham Business Alliance.
Though the area’s mean annual wage is 6% below the national numbers, private-sector jobs in Birmingham increased by 5.3% between 2009 and 2016, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“Alabama is not glamorous,” Reider said. “It doesn’t boom, but it doesn’t bust. These sleepy, slow economies of the south are good economies for banking.”
Kenneth Till, a former First Partners chief financial officer who is set to become CommerceOne’s CEO, did not respond to request for comment.
Oakworth Capital was the last true de novo to open in Birmingham, debuting in early 2008. AloStar Bank of Commerce was formed in April 2011, though it was created to buy the failed Nexity Bank.