As consolidation continues to disrupt Florida’s banking industry, St. Petersburg, Florida-based First Home Bank remains true to its core values, while taking aggressive action to grow and grow. | Business Observer

The effects of the banking sector consolidation have been felt hard in the communities around Florida, probably not more so than in Pinellas County, where, in recent years, C1 Bank, USAmeriBank and Freedom Bank have been absorbed. by larger institutions.

Amid the uproar, St. Petersburg-based First Home Bank, established in 1999, has grown into one of the leading local community banks. Since 2013, the bank has been led by CEO Anthony Leo, 61, who has presided over nearly a decade of substantial growth.

“We were a very small bank when I started here,” says Leo. “We had maybe $ 16 million in assets. We did not have the basic capital.

In June 2020, FHB exceeded $ 1 billion in total assets for the first time in its history. By the third quarter of 2021, total assets had declined to $ 943.74 million – a decline the bank attributes to a decrease in paycheck protection program loan balances as the SBA canceled many P3 loans. The PPP has been a huge success for the bank, already a very active SBA lender, and with over $ 1.2 billion in loans issued, it has become one of the largest federal program lenders, relative to the asset size.

The next act of banking, in a post-PPP world, will require skillful management and movement. On the one hand, how will it monitor the meteoric success of its PPP lending efforts? And with local consolidation and increased competition – Climate First Bank, also based in St. Pete, launched in June of this year and recently announced plans to expand to Winter Park – how will it maintain and Will it increase its market share while pushing back acquisition attempts?

HIGH PROFILE

Leo says there has been a concerted effort by FHB to raise awareness of the bank’s strong presence in supporting local businesses and home buyers. SBA loans and residential mortgages are two of his specialties, and he gets the word out through a dynamic marketing program, including a sponsorship from Tampa Bay Rowdies Football Club.

“A few years ago,” says Leo, “our biggest challenge was the lack of knowledge of our organization. It was our biggest marketing challenge. We have invested substantial sums and by expanding our banking network and expanding our team of employees, we are overcoming this challenge, but it has required a substantial investment, not only in marketing, but in technology, people, facilities. and overall infrastructure.

“When it comes to individuals, families and small businesses – the heart of our community – we compete effectively and we never give up. »Anthony Leo, CEO of First Home Bank

So if it seems like you are reading, seeing, and hearing more about FHB, it is no coincidence. On November 30, BayFirst Financial Corp., the bank’s holding company, was authorized to be listed on the Nasdaq Stock Exchange under the symbol BAFN. This makes it the only Nasdaq-listed bank holding company headquartered on the west coast of Florida and one of only seven in the state.

On the same day, FHB opened its new branch in Belleair Bluffs, offering it seven locations across Hillsborough, Pinellas and Sarasota counties, with another branch en route in Carrollwood, north of downtown Tampa. He also recently acquired a former BB&T branch on State Road 70 in eastern Manatee County, just outside of Lakewood Ranch, for $ 1.85 million.

“We plan to continue to grow during the life of our strategic plan through a number of means, including the opening of new banking centers,” said Leo, “while continuing to develop all other elements of our business, including SBA and conventional business loans, residential loans, and consumer loans.

FHB’s payroll has increased alongside its finances. Leo says the bank had about 20 employees when he took the reins; today, its workforce exceeds 650. But the CEO does not seem surprised by the rapid transformation.

“When we were small, insignificant and not very profitable, I said: ‘We are going to become the bank of Tampa Bay, ”says Leo. “And I insisted on the word ‘the’. We tabled this. I didn’t think it was a trademark, but now we’re officially recognized by the US Patent and Trademark Office as “The Bank of Tampa Bay”. region, this designation carries heavy bragging rights.)

Clearly, some external factors – such as PPP and winnowing from local competitors – also worked in FHB’s favor. But Leo says the main reason for the bank’s growth is its relentless focus on what it does well – being a community bank that doesn’t go beyond its reach.

“We are not designed to serve large, publicly traded companies,” he says. “We’re more of a middle-class organization, but we can serve a wealthy person. We have a broad business model, but we’re probably not as competitive in the high-income world of trust companies. But outside of that, when it comes to individuals, families and small businesses – the heart of our community – we compete effectively and never give up.

GIVE A HAND

In addition to PPP loans, non-urgent loans to local minority and women owned businesses have been a priority and a strength for FHB. At the end of 2020, the bank set itself the goal of lending $ 50 million to these companies by 2023. Ten months later, it had already passed this milestone and was approaching $ 90 million.

The drive to better serve minority-owned businesses stems from a sense of corporate responsibility and social justice, says Leo, who notes that the most recent edition of the annual small credit survey Federal Reserve Bank companies contained shocking revelations. The survey found that black-owned and Latino-owned businesses that applied for non-urgent funding had less than half the chance that white-owned businesses would be fully approved, even when black-owned businesses were not approved. Latinos and whites were all classified as low credit risk.

“What are the reasons why this is the case? Leo asks. “The easy answer may be that there are institutional biases, but there are much deeper, but subtle barriers… cultural barriers and barriers to financial literacy. This is what we are working on.

Leo says FHB bankers are encouraged to go further and further to help corporate banking clients improve their preparation of financial statements and other important documents needed to secure a loan. “Reaching out, making yourself available, providing resources, providing financial education and training… that’s what it is about,” he says.

JJ Miniello, an entrepreneur from Dunedin originally from Argentina, has benefited greatly from FHB’s openings to small business owners, especially those of black and Latino descent. Miniello owns the Meranova Inn, a bed and breakfast in Dunedin; Eve’s Florist, a florist with branches in Oldsmar and Clearwater; and Austral Investments LLC, a real estate development company. He says he was an IberiaBank customer until about five years ago, when his account manager moved to FHB.

Miniello, who moved to the United States in 1999 but did not know English at the time, turned out to be a quick student and graduated in Economics and Finance from the University of South Florida in 2004. He then went to work for Wachovia Bank, until it collapsed in the 2008 financial crisis and was bought out by Wells Fargo – so he knows a thing or two about banking practices, good and bad. .

“Traditional banks see it the traditional way, which basically comes down to ratios and calculations done by a computer,” he says. “The big banks have so many customers they just push a button and it’s like, ‘Yes, you are qualified’ or ‘No you are not qualified. First Home Bank is more open-minded – they listen to your story, especially if you have a small business. They love to get involved in the community and take pride in helping local small businesses.

Miniello says FHB helped him refinance the Meranova Inn, which was in trouble when he bought it, with an occupancy rate hovering around 40% and net after-tax income of around $ 20,000. per year.

“The tax returns were really, really bad,” he says. “The owners, they started it as a hobby and were ready to retire, so they didn’t put a lot of effort or marketing into it.

Miniello says he approached seven banks for refinancing assistance. Everyone refused it. FHB, however, saw the potential in what he was trying to do.

“They look at future projections and look at your background as a person, as a businessman; they believe in you, ”he says. “They believed in me, and I took the occupancy rate from the 40’s to the 80’s, and now it’s a very successful business. We’re going to have our best year this year, even with [the effects of] COVID-19[FEMALE”[FEMININE”

With the lower mortgage interest rate and the additional cash he was able to obtain from refinancing with FHB, Miniello plans to add wedding services to the Meranova Inn services, which in turn will increase the turnover of business of its florists.

“Weddings, after COVID,” he says, “will be a big thing.”