If there were a downside to First Bank of Georgia’s now year-old merger into State Bank & Trust, Remer Brinson and Cameron Nixon haven’t been able to find it.
And it’s not because the bank’s top two local executives haven’t been looking. It’s because all indications – including lending activity – point to the contrary.
“We closed more loans in the second half of the year than we did in the first half,” said Nixon, commenting on the midyear re-branding initiative that fully integrated the Augusta operations into the $3.5 billion Atlanta-based holding company.
Brinson said the transition from First Bank to State Bank has been the smoothest of the four mergers he has experienced in his three-decade banking career.
“All conversions are hard, but I think it went as well as a conversion could go,” he said. “Culturally, they (State Bank) are very much like us. They match up very well to the way we do business.”
“For our customers,” Brinson said, “it’s business as usual.”
Besides the new name, the most visible change to what had been the market’s second-largest locally owned bank is the new black-and-orange color scheme. No branches have closed and nearly all 160 former First Bank employees now work for State Bank – with most still performing the same jobs they did prior to the January 2015 merger.
Unlike many bank deals that tend to consolidate authority in the acquiring institution’s headquarters, the purchase approved by First Bank’s former holding company, Georgia-Carolina Bancshares Inc., actually elevated Brinson’s position and left him based in Augusta 60 percent of the time.
As State Bank president, Brinson oversees the company’s more than two-dozen offices in metro Atlanta, Middle Georgia and the Augusta area. He’s also executive vice president of the bank’s holding company, State Bank Financial Corp.
“This isn’t like the old model where the regional comes in and takes away all the authority,” Brinson said.
Other former First Bank executives were promoted as well. Nixon was moved up to executive vice president for east Georgia operations while Tom Bird, the former head of First Bank’s mortgage operation, was named president of State Bank Mortgage, the merged company’s home lending division that operates seven origination offices.
Brinson reports directly to State Bank Chairman Joseph W. Evans and CEO J. Thomas Wiley – the two men who created State Bank in 2009 from the ashes of the subprime mortgage crisis and recession.
The veteran bank-builders – Evans’ Century South Banks Inc. was bought by BB&T Corp. in 2001 and Wiley’s Flag Financial was aquired by a Royal Bank of Canada subsidiary in 2006 – raised nearly $300 million to acquire and recapitalize Security Bank in Macon, which had been seized by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.
During the next couple of years, State Bank began building its franchise by acquiring a dozen other failed banks at discount prices through FDIC “loss-sharing” agreements, whereby the government encouraged the acquisition of failed institutions by agreeing to cover their loan losses for a set time period.
After getting the banks back on their feet, Evans and Wiley set their sights on acquiring healthy, mid-sized community banks.
The company had no presence in east Georgia, mostly because no Augusta-area banks failed during the housing bust.
“We didn’t have an oversupply of housing,” Brinson said. “We were building to meet a demand instead of building in anticipation of a demand.”
State Bank’s overtures to First Bank started in 2012, according to filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
But First Bank shareholders weren’t initially interested, so Atlanta Bancorporation Inc., which State Bank acquired in October 2014 for $25 million, became Evans’ and Wiley’s first profitable bank acquisition.
First Bank shareholders eventually warmed to the $82 million cash-and-stock deal, and the acquisition was completed early in 2015, with First Bank being completely merged in – name and all – by midyear.
The deal enabled State Bank to enter the previously untapped Augusta market and gave it a major presence in the mortgage industry through First Bank’s powerhouse home-lending operation. What the former First Bank operation got in return was an immediate boost in assets – from roughly $500 million to $3.5 billion – that enabled it to raise its regulator-set lending limit from $10 million to $40 million overnight.
“There were some folks that we couldn’t lend to before,” Nixon said. “Now we’re seeing a lot of activity from folks we haven’t met before and closing on new business that we couldn’t have done before.”
In addition to being able to serve larger corporations, the merger increased the bank’s ability to better serve businesses on the far other end of the spectrum through the U.S. Small Business Administration’s 7(a) Loan Program.
The program, which can offer financing as low as $50,000 or as high as $2 million, was specifically designed for very small businesses and start-up companies that often can’t qualify for traditional business loans.
Another new offering for the former First Bank operation is payroll management services. State Bank’s Altera Payment Solutions, which competes with national companies such as ADP and Paychex, offers outsourced human resources and accounting capabilities to enable companies to focus on their core businesses.
“It’s a service we didn’t have before and we’re very excited to bring it to the market,” Brinson said.
Legacy customers of First Bank will notice enhancements to the bank’s consumer operations, such as the expanded statewide ATM network and the addition of mobile deposit services that enable customers to deposit checks using their smartphone cameras.
As for future expansion plans, Brinson said the bank plans to do more business in the Aiken County side of the metro area, but added that additional branch offices aren’t coming any time soon. The bank’s last new branch was opened in the Evans area in 2013.
Brinson, who joined the former First Bank organization in 1999, points to the recent $50,000 pledge to Symphony Orchestra Augusta’s Miller Theater renovation project and the $30,000 donation to the Thomson Family Y as evidence that the bank’s new ownership hasn’t changed its civic commitments to the Augusta area.
“We can do everything we did in the past, and we can do even more now,” Brinson said.