Banking on Change

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Cogent Bank’s Southwest Florida

Because their real names could be superhero aliases, it’s appropriate that they opened their first local bank branch on the corner of Metropolis and Krypton. Brandon Box and Marty Mahan are the market president and regional banking executive, respectively, of Cogent Bank’s Southwest Florida division, which launched its first office a year ago off Metro Parkway in south Fort Myers. This fall, the Florida-based, state-chartered commercial bank opened an office in North Naples. Though many banks today are selling and consolidating, Cogent is emerging while others are merging, Mahan said.

“We’re new and unique, but we’re not new bankers. We probably have the most experienced banking team, starting with our top executives in Orlando.” Cogent’s founders wanted a nontraditional name for a new bank that is scalable and not tied to a specific geographic area, Box said. Cogent, of course, means compelling, valid, clear, credible and well founded. “What better name for a bank when you actually start thinking about the definition?” he says. “But, also, it sort of implies it’s a modern company, one that really takes into account the name and the way they do business. I think it’s really about something that stands out and is looked at as different because that’s what we are trying to build— something that’s different than the vast majority.”

As Cogent’s fully functioning, temporary branch office operates on the fifth floor of the eight-story Fifth Third Center at 999 Vanderbilt Beach Road, a new bank is taking shape on the first floor that will take at least six months to build, Box said. But because most clients don’t have a need to regularly come into the bank, Cogent plans only a couple of strategically planned locations in each market, in order to save about a half a million dollars a year to operate each branch. The cost savings will allow Cogent to hire twice as many good people, Box said. “For us, it’s about what’s more impactful to the bottom line and to customer service: great bankers. So, let’s put our money in great bankers, and not as much money in just brick and mortar,” he says. “It’s a double-edged sword, because people still do ask, ‘Where’s your location?’ But it’s a heck of a lot better to say we hired a lot more people than to say we have some more brick and mortar. That’s kind of our strategy; it’s great bankers.” “Our focus is not on the project, not on the building, not on the real estate. It’s on the person. It’s still a people business,” Mahan says.

 

Down to business

Since May, William Blevins has been leading efforts to charter a new business bank headquartered in Fort Myers.

Gulf Coast Business Bank, promoted with the tagline “focused on your dreams and goals,” will be the first business-focused community bank to start in Southwest Florida in the last 12 years. The new bank intends to fill a void in the fast-growing region it says is underserved for relationship-based community banking because consolidation has shifted funds to larger banks.

The bank’s founding board and organizers are investing more than $3 million of the $20 million needed to be raised in capital. The bank anticipates opening in early 2022 in a former bank branch with a drive-thru purchased at 12205 Metro Parkway in Fort Myers.

Blevins, who is president and CEO of the new bank, has been a banking executive in Southwest Florida for nearly 35 years. Formerly a regional vice president of Wells Fargo and Bank of America, he was an executive vice president of Encore Bank and then Lake Michigan Credit Union in Southwest Florida during the last decade.

 

Branching out

While many banks are scaling back on branches because of omnipresent online banking, Fifth Third Bank is doing the opposite, adding more branches to its more than 30 offices in Collier, Lee and Charlotte counties. In its effort to bridge the gap between technology and customer relations, Cincinnati-based Fifth Third Bancorp recently rolled out its “next-gen” office design, to replace teller lines with options such as open meeting spaces and a more comfortable experience for customers. Although these next-generation branches are smaller than many of its existing offices, the nationally chartered Fifth Third sees the need for a community presence. “We are still a relationship bank even though digital transactions have increased. There’s still need for that customer service in person, and we’ll always be a relationship bank,” says Jennifer Auray, marketing director for Fifth Third Bank, South Florida.

New branch sizes are being downsized from an average of 4,300 square feet to closer to 3,000 square feet—or less. When Fifth Third opened a next-generation Cape Coral branch in August, it still had six more locations set to launch before the end of the year between Sarasota and Naples. Those include redevelopment projects opening at the end of September on the site of a former Burger King drive-thru on College Parkway in Fort Myers, and another in December on the vacant lot of a former gas station on the corner of U.S. 41 and Bayshore Drive in East Naples. In addition, three offices are in planning stages in Collier County. A look inside the new branch on Cape Coral Parkway reveals the atmosphere of a coffee shop as much as a bank, with a “transactional bar” used for deposits and offices for more in-depth services such as financial consulting.

“Seventy-five percent of transactions occur online, but we also know customers choose to bank with us based on who they can trust. We strongly feel we need to be accessible for the complex needs that our customers have,” says Jim Weiss, regional president, noting that Florida is a focal point for Fifth Third, one of the largest consumer banks in the Midwest. “Our goal is to get to an 8% building share in South Florida,” said John Slavik, South Florida retail executive for Fifth Third. “Our business has gone from transactional to consulting.”

 

Merge Right

The largest independent bank headquartered in Naples is set to be acquired this quarter, enabling Dallas-based First Foundation Bank to expand into Southwest Florida. First Foundation Inc. will acquire TGR Financial Inc. and its community bank subsidiary, First Florida Integrity Bank, which has $2.3 billion in total assets and seven branch locations in the Naples area. TGR will merge into First Foundation in an all-stock transaction valued at about $295 million, or $15.23 per TGR Financial share, according to a definitive merger agreement announced this summer.

Naples residents Gary Tice and Garrett Richter have capitalized on community banking in Southwest Florida over the last three decades before selling their bank franchises to larger banks in major transactions. After starting First National Bank of Florida in 1989, Chairman/CEO Tice and President Richter sold their Naples-based bank to Fifth Third Bank for a record price of $1.5 billion in 2005. The local businessmen then started First National Bank of the Gulf Coast in 2009. In 2014, First National Bank of the Gulf Coast converted from a nationally chartered bank to a state-chartered bank and was renamed First Florida Integrity Bank.

In an unrelated bank merger, some BB&T and SunTrust branch offices closed this year in Southwest Florida because of obvious proximity issues following their merger into Truist, which created the sixth-largest bank in the nation and the largest bank deal in more than a decade. Both BB&T and SunTrust names appear together on exterior signage on many offices expected to be rebranded soon as Truist in a full transition that was delayed because of the pandemic. All of the closures have been related to Truist’s blended branch program between the merged banks, said Amber Odom, corporate communications manager for Truist, which is based in Charlotte, North Carolina. “As we continue to transition to the full Truist client experience in 2022, we’re continually working to create a better banking experience for our clients,” Truist reports. “Our blended branch concept is a natural next step for the many SunTrust and BB&T branches that are very close in proximity, many across the street or even in the same parking lot.” Separate operating systems for BB&T and SunTrust are being converted to a new joint system, a move expected to eliminate more than $1.5 billion of Truist’s total combined expenses by the end of next year.

 

Photo Credit: Getty

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