Why Signature Bank is pressing ahead with West Coast expansion

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Signature Bank in New York, which said Wednesday it will be entering the Los Angeles area, has now hired more than five dozen bankers as part of its California expansion that began two years ago.

The $53 billion-asset bank has been gravitating away from its traditional reliance on multifamily commercial real estate lending and problematic taxi medallion loans back East. Signature is now betting that it can take its closely intertwined private banking and commercial lending businesses to the West Coast even as the coronavirus pandemic continues to grip the area. Signature said on Wednesday that it was adding four offices in Southern California, in Woodland Hills, Newport Beach, Beverly Hills and Ontario, to go with its presence in San Francisco.

The company has added 15 private banking teams in California since the beginning of the year, bringing its total to 19 with 61 bankers working in the L.A. and San Francisco markets.

Signature “realized the vast opportunity for bankers and clients alike on the West Coast,” and its San Francisco private banking customers are already benefiting from its commercial banking services, CEO Joseph DePaolo said in a statement.

Eric Howell, executive vice president of corporate and business development at Signature, said in an email that company executives have been focusing on giving clients remote access to a single point of contact at the bank for two decades now. The bank’s model for generating commercial lending leads from its private banking business “thrives” in times like these, he said, adding that the bank has avoided the kinds of communication problems that have overwhelmed many banks because clients already know who to reach out to without having to go into a branch.

Salary and benefits spending at Signature Bank

The pandemic "did not delay us at all in hiring the teams or onboarding clients — in fact it may have helped,” Howell said.

As part of 45 hires announced Wednesday, Signature said that it has brought on Judi Prejean from Bank of the West to oversee the West Coast operation as executive director. Prejean has worked with small and midsize businesses across California and is part of a crop of bankers Signature has plucked from bigger rivals operating in the state.

Emilie McMurray has joined Signature from JPMorgan Chase, and James Canepa moved from Bank of the West. Both McMurray and Canepa were named managing group director and senior vice president. McMurray will oversee six private banking and commercial lending teams in the state, while Canepa is running four such teams focused on the Southern California market.

Other executives with experience in the state were hired from JPMorgan, Wells Fargo, Bank of America and Citigroup to join the new teams.

The impact of the hirings has been evident in the bank’s expense growth. Salaries and benefits increased 10% between year-end and March 31 to more than $93 million. Analysts at D.A. Davidson expect overall noninterest expenses will grow 17.5% for the year as a result of the aggressive expansion on the West Coast, according to a recent research note.

But at the same time, Signature has already seen a boost from its California expansion. Income before taxes and provisions for credit losses as the pandemic set in grew by 5.2% in the first quarter from the previous three months, which was above research analysts’ projections at the time, according to analysts at Raymond James.

The addition of the offices in California “provides fuel for continued new business opportunities,” the analysts said in their most recent note to clients.

DePaolo said on an April 23 call with analysts that he would like to see the West Coast operation one day match its East Coast business in size, indicating that he was taking a longer-term view in which the company exceeds $100 billion of assets.

“We are motivated by the initiatives we recently put in place, such as our California expansion, because the enormity of the current environment has to be outweighed by the importance of the future,” DePaolo said at the time. “The bank must forge ahead and continue a path of growth where opportunities abound.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated Judi Prejean's previous employer.

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