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Business Observer Friday, Sep. 19, 2003 15 years ago

Banker of the Year: Jerry Williams

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President and CEO Orion BancorpYes, Jerry Williams is a confident guy. Why wouldn't he be?Williams, 42, owns controlling interest in an $829 million bank holding company, Orion Bancorp.
by: Article Author Staff Writer

Banker of the Year: Jerry Williams

President and CEO Orion Bancorp

By Kendall Jones

Senior Editor

Throw out the stereotype of boring, stuffed-shirt bankers. Many of today's banking leaders and most of the next generation of bankers are innovators and entrepreneurs, regularly stepping outside of the conventional banking box.

Competition for the regional banking dollar is particularly intense, with an extraordinary number of banks in the market. And there is little variation among core bank products. As a result, bank marketing and promotion has become critically important. Some bankers have decorated courier cars and the bank buildings with splashy designs to attract customers. Others have gone the opposite direction, making their banks appear extraordinarily upscale, trying to woo the high-dollar customer.

But when it comes down to it, successful bankers repeat the over-used adage: It's the banking team that matters. Lenders with a large, desperately loyal book of business; tellers who recall every customer's name; bank managers involved in countless community and charity organizations.

And the directors of every successful bank will tell you that the bank's main team leader, its chief executive officer, president, and/or chairman of the board - often all the same person - is the most critical person of all. A CEO who is well known and well respected in the region brings credibility and shareholders to a bank. A bank president with a proven track record enables a bank to grow more rapidly. And if he is a fun guy to go fishing with on the weekends, all the better.

For this year's Gulf Coast Business Review Banker of the Year, we focused solely on the leaders of banks whose corporate headquarters are based on the Gulf Coast.

The Review then compared the nominations it received with financial records and selected the best-managed banks. These are the high-performance banks, with return on average equity higher than 15% and return on average assets higher than 1.2%.

But being Banker of the Year requires more than strong numbers. There is also an intangible quality to consider - reputation in the community, reputation among peers, respect as a leader and manager, ambition and drive, proven ability to design and meet significant institutional goals. The Review also considered the entrepreneurial spirit of each banker, strategy for the future and big-picture plan for getting there.

This year's honorees possess those qualities. And their impact on the region has only just begun.

Yes, Jerry Williams is a confident guy. Why wouldn't he be?

Williams, 42, owns controlling interest in an $829 million bank holding company, Orion Bancorp - a company he steadily grew from $30 million over the last 15 years. Orion Bank is now the largest privately held bank in Southwest Florida and the second largest in the state, behind Miami-based City National Bank. And he's only 42 years old.

"Jerry speaks with authority for Orion because he controls the board," says one regional banker. "When you own all the marbles, you can control the game. It allows for a higher degree of confidence."

Williams' control of Orion's game has been incredibly effective.

The American Bankers Association Banking Journal recently placed Orion in the top 1% of community banks in the country, ranking it number 29 out of 2,898 banks evaluated based on 2002 performance. It also ranked Orion as the top Florida bank with assets over $150 million.

Banks with that kind of performance level and track record tend to get bought. Boards of directors of such banks happily sell for a handsome return at this point. But not Williams. Though he regularly gets solicitous phone calls from the acquisition-hungry regional and national banks, Williams finds them little more than a flattering ego-boost. He doesn't want to sell, and because he controls the board, the board doesn't want to sell either.

Williams says it's because he's having too much fun.

Talk to Williams for a couple of minutes, and you know he's not kidding. It's apparent that when Williams talks about Orion, he is really talking about his child; he beams with pride. With a hearty laugh and an affinity for inside jokes, he oozes charisma. A few moments in his presence, and you feel like an old friend he golfs with every weekend.

Williams eagerly boasts of his banking success. With nearly childlike glee, he happily shows off spreadsheets and computer programs that prove Orion is eating the competition at every turn. Also proud of his top-of-the-line BMW, private jet and handsome family, Williams is not modest.

Maybe it's his small-town roots. Williams grew up in Athens, Texas, population 10,000. He was the middle of three brothers. He played football and ran track - sprints and hurdles - in high school. He was voted "Most Popular." After high school, he first attended University of Texas, Austin.

"UT had like 55,000 students," says Williams. "To go from a small town of 10,000 to 55,000 students was culture shock." But he found a pocket of friends and joined Sigma Alpha Epsilon.

Williams says he never lost some of that small-town mentality. "I think that's where I got my focus on building relationships," says Williams. "I still have those old-fashioned values. It's also why we are so committed to the communities we enter. When we build a bank in a community, we try to become an integral part of that community."

Williams started his banking career with an Orion predecessor in the Keys and has moved up Florida's West Coast over the last 15 years. He moved to Naples less than 10 years ago, but Orion and Williams have already become an integral part of that community.

"Jerry has immersed himself in the Collier County community since he's been here," says Dudley Goodlette, a member of the state House of Representatives from Naples. "He served as chairman of the chamber board, and he has worked on every important group. He is a great resource in the state of Florida and the community of Southwest Florida."

Florida bankers recognize and respect Williams' leadership and commitment as well. Just recently, Williams chaired the Florida Bankers Association Convention, at Amelia Island. That chair position is a highly visible position; the association usually selects for that role someone it thinks is a contender for future FBA leadership. It's a big deal, and by most accounts, Williams did superbly.

Maybe Williams' gregarious and approachable personality is the secret to Orion's incredible growth. From 2000 to 2001, the bank's assets grew by almost $89 million, or 16%. In 2002, Williams consolidated the holding company's two banks, Gulf Coast National Bank and First National Bank of the Florida Keys, and renamed them "Orion." Even with those dramatic changes, assets grew in 2002 by nearly $126 million to $756 million, or 19.9%. With current assets of more than $829 million, Orion is on track for a similar year in 2003.

"The dollars have been bigger, but we've really grown by about the same percentage - about 20% - every year for the last seven years," says Williams. "We will maintain that level of growth and will consistently be at that 20% growth level in the years to come."

The bank's net income skyrocketed as well, up 19% for the first six months of 2003 over the same period last year. In fact, virtually every measure of growth has increased by double digits each year for the past three years, when the bank has grown from five Southwest Florida branches in 2000 to 16 branches in Collier, Lee and Sarasota counties and the Florida Keys. Orion just held its grand opening on University Parkway in Sarasota, and the branch on Main Street in downtown Sarasota - the design of which has local business people agog - will open before year's end.

Orion Bank's second quarter 2003 return on average equity was 18.80%, while its return on average assets was 1.50%, both well into high performance bank territory. The holding company posted a second quarter 2003 ROE of 24.9% and an ROA of 1.42%. For the first six months of 2003, the holding company reported $1.28 diluted earnings per share.

Orion has 360 shareholders, but 80% of those own 20% of the bank. The bank's roots are 26 years old, so there are plenty of shareholders with tiny interest from decades ago - Williams has helped make them wealthy. But Williams, who is by far the largest shareholder, has made out the best. He won't disclose an exact percentage of his ownership, but he says the second largest shareholder owns less than 4% of the bank.

Like most successful banks, Orion relies on the reputation and perseverance of its loan officers and managers to keep the growth happening. Banker of the Year runner-up Charlie Brown of Charlotte State Bank compliments Williams' team, saying, "Jerry has got a really tremendous group of bankers over there."

Williams also attributes the bank's success to an interesting volume ratio: "We don't have volumes of clients, but we do have volumes of dollars. We can give a tremendous amount of personal service because we don't have 80,000 customers."

But Williams says the privately held nature of such a large bank is probably its best competitive advantage. "We are different because we are privately owned," he says. "At the end of the day, I make those decisions that are not made locally in other banks this size. The other large banks have headquarters in Alabama or Orlando or Charlotte, and out-of-area people are having to sign a $15 million to $20 million commitment. Our strength is this niche we have between small startups that can't provide that lending level and the very large banks that can't make a decision quickly and locally."

That niche is proving strong. Unlike the other banks featured in this issue, Orion is transcending the ranks of community banks and is becoming a true regional bank for the Gulf Coast. Williams' goals don't stop there. He envisions spreading Orion and its independent ownership character even further throughout the state, though he does not yet know where.

"It's easy to keep building branches," says Williams. "The most difficult thing is finding the right people to go build and run the branch. I could go build three new branches in Orlando, but without the people there, what would I have? Three buildings."

When he's not at the bank, Williams might be at the golf course working on his seven handicap. More likely, though he is taking his kids to play hockey or golf. He and wife, Heather, have three sons, ages 12, 10 and 2. Mrs. Williams describes her husband as "generous, driven." As an afterthought, she adds, "and extremely intelligent," to which he laughingly says, "she wants to go shopping."

Asked about his greatest challenge in the next 12 to 24 months, Williams replies: "We want to continue to bring in talent and grow and perform at the same level. We need to keep ahead of infrastructure. We are excited about next year because we are going through the $1 billion mark, which for an independent bank is big. As long as we can maintain growth and recruit good people, we can stay independent and private. There are no limits. I know guys who have been doing it with $10 billion and $14 billion banks."

- Kendall Jones

ORION BANK ($ = Thousands)

Gulf Coast National Bank/First NationalGulf Coast National Bank/First NationalOrion Bank

Bank of the Florida Keys 2000 Bank of the Florida Keys 2001Orion Bank '0201/03-06/03

Total Assets$316,989/$224,141$393,923/$236,058$755,711$826,824

Total deposits$258,910/$162,016$291,957/$167,870$578,548$660,280

Noncurrent loans and leases0/$1,1110/$466$143$360

Net income$2,279/$2,379$3,340/$2,813$10,006$5,927

Return on assets0.82%/1.12%0.96%/1.24%1.45%1.50%

Return on equity13.44%/17.93%14.36%/18.26%19.48%18.80%

Efficiency ratio70.69%/66.94%66.40%/65.64%53.82%50.12%

Assets per employee (millions)4.34/4.314.63/4.825.445.27

Noncurrent loans to loans0/0.68%0/0.27%0.02%0.05%

Total risk-based capital ratio10.26%/10.80%10.31%/10.17%10.10%10.89%

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