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Business Observer Friday, Feb. 18, 2005 17 years ago

The Duel

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Why is the Bank of St. Petersburg expanding so fast? Maybe the bank's new chairman wants to show upa former colleague who fired him.
by: Janelle Makowski Staff Writer

The Duel

By Francis X. Gilpin

Associate Editor

The end was painful, compared to their glory years of making scads of cash together. Joseph V. Chillura says he listened to a stream of invective from Anthony F. Gonzalez over a sporadic cellular telephone connection on Clearwater Beach.

"He wanted to insult and scream and yell at me," Chillura recalls of their 2003 phone conversation. "So I let him go."

Gonzalez was upset at Chillura, chief executive of Colonial Bank's Tampa Bay area operation, for ousting him from the $100,000-a-year chairmanship of the bank's regional advisory board.

Thus began not only months of bitter litigation between the two men, which is far from concluded. But the Gonzalez-Chillura split also sealed a plan to energize an underachieving 20-year-old bank in St. Petersburg.

In spite of the name, the Bank of St. Petersburg has moved quickly to create a local buzz in Hillsborough as well as Pinellas counties. The bank even moved headquarters across the bay to Tampa.

Tony Gonzalez, a retired Tampa criminal defense lawyer, is one of the masterminds behind the Bank of St. Petersburg's growth strategy. He got rich building a Tampa bank and selling it off to Colonial. He and some of his same partners from the old Manufacturers Bank of Florida hope to replicate their success with the Bank of St. Petersburg.

Gonzalez thought Joey Chillura would be right there with them again. But a battle of egos doomed their profitable friendship.

The story of their parting, gleaned from court records, might explain the unusual ferocity with which the Bank of St. Petersburg is striving to become, as its promotional slogan proclaims, "Tampa Bay's community bank."

Former lawyer

Like many attorneys from the Cigar City, Anthony Frank Gonzalez got his juris doctorate at South Texas College of Law. The Houston school is known among Tampa alumni as "E.J. U." E.J. Salcines, a state appellate court judge, is the law school's most enthusiastic recruiter in Tampa.

Gonzalez, 59, practiced mostly criminal defense and spent eight years in partnership with another prominent Tampa attorney, Bennie Lazzara. In 1997, Gonzalez closed his law practice to devote most of his attention to Manufacturers Bank, which his family had helped found in 1986.

By 2000, Gonzalez was making $240,000 a year serving in various executive capacities at the bank and its holding company, Manufacturers BancShares Inc.

Despite some internal dissension, Manufacturers Bank was growing and had attracted a suitor in Colonial. Tampa accountant Luciano L. Prida Jr., a founding Manufacturers director along with Gonzalez, gives a good deal of the credit to Joey Chillura, the bank's chief operating officer.

"He's a very talented lender," Prida says of Chillura.

Prida, 54, a certified public accountant who used to be internal auditor for the city of Tampa, says Gonzalez recruited Chillura to Manufacturers Bank in the late 1990s.

Chillura, 38, son of former Hillsborough Commissioner Joe Chillura Jr., was disgusted working at First Union Bank, according to Prida. Gonzalez lured the young banker over to Manufacturers Bank during a trip they took to a Miami boat show.

Prida says he couldn't believe it when Gonzalez called with the news. "I basically told him, you're full - I used an expletive," Prida remembers. "I said, no way."

Manufacturers Bank was on pace to make more than $3 million in 2001 from $296 million in assets when it was sold that fall. The $56 million sale to Alabama-based Colonial BancGroup Inc. was negotiated by Gonzalez, Prida, Chillura and Manufacturers President Alfred T. Rogers.

Gonzalez made out well. Regulatory records show he owned 15% of the bank, meaning Gonzalez could have come away with as much as $8.4 million in Colonial stock.

Short stay

Those proceeds gave Gonzalez a certain financial independence that Prida and the others still lacked. Prida had earned steady CPA fees from Manufacturers Bank. But, as Chillura points out, "he did not cash in like Mr. Gonzalez did on stock."

All four Manufacturers Bank negotiators came over to Colonial at first. But Chillura says he and Rogers eventually grew disenchanted with Gonzalez.

Gonzalez, who had become a big Colonial stockholder, demanded $200,000 a year to chair the bank's Tampa advisory board, according to Chillura. That wasn't all. Gonzalez wanted an office, a particular executive assistant assigned to him, and his golf club membership dues at Avila and Longboat Key picked up by Colonial.

Colonial BancGroup Chairman Robert E. Lowder countered with an offer of $100,000 a year, the office and the assistant. A disappointed Gonzalez told Chillura that he would accept that.

But Chillura, Colonial's Tampa CEO, wasn't sure Gonzalez deserved even that. "He was not generating the type of activity that would justify $100,000 worth of compensation," says Chillura.

Chillura left Gonzalez off Colonial's Florida loan committee, which reviews proposed borrowing packages of between $2 million and $20 million, because "he didn't come in very often."

Gonzalez tried to save his Colonial job by telling Lowder that Chillura and Rogers were running a loan company on the side that serviced former Manufacturers customers. (See "Bank Shots," GCBR, July 23-29.) But Lowder sided with Chillura.

Chillura's dismay culminated with the scratchy 2003 cell phone call from Clearwater Beach, where the CEO was inspecting a property for the bank.

"It was a tough call because I had a long relationship with Mr. Gonzalez," says Chillura. "We, Manufacturers Bank, had made a lot of money together and we had a relationship."

New beginning

Gonzalez and Prida were free to resume what Chillura claims was a long courtship of a Tampa investor who had bought the Bank of St. Petersburg.

Robert Rothman, a University of Chicago MBA, had acquired the Bank of St. Petersburg for $11 million. In 2002, Rothman met Gonzalez through fundraising for the Academy of the Holy Names, a Catholic girls school in South Tampa.

Rothman, 51, a successful insurance executive with no previous banking experience, was looking for investors and new management for his latest venture.

While Gonzalez was still at Colonial, he introduced Rothman to Chillura. Gonzalez says he did that to assist Chillura in getting Rothman to bank at Colonial. Chillura says Gonzalez was trying to get him to jump to the Bank of St. Petersburg. "They ultimately wanted me to run it," says Chillura.

Rothman was willing to give up control of the Bank of St. Petersburg to attract the right investors. And Rothman did, testifying last year that he now owns about 43% of the Bank of St. Petersburg's holding company following a private placement that diluted his stake. Former employees and directors of Manufacturers Bank apparently scooped up much of the stock, with Gonzalez's encouragement.

Gonzalez's plan for the Bank of St. Petersburg was simple, according to Chillura. Cherry-pick the best of Colonial's Tampa moneymakers when they became available.

"Tony and Lou could take some employees and get the thing going," Chillura says. "Then when my contract was up, I would have a soft landing and I could land in a new bank that could mimic what was done at Manufacturers."

Chillura admits he was tempted. "It sounded interesting but very dangerous," he says of the alleged overture from Gonzalez and Prida. "I wanted them to stay committed to Colonial."

Gonzalez says one rationale for terminating him - that Colonial didn't like him poaching within its Tampa executive ranks for the Bank of St. Petersburg - was a "total fabrication."

Money exchange

Although Chillura portrays his refusal to leave Colonial as an act of loyalty, Prida offers a different explanation.

"He was stuck," says Prida, a Gonzalez ally, referring to Chillura. "He had hired his brother-in-law... He had hired various other people that were either extended family or... he had known a long time. He couldn't afford them getting fired."

Plus, there were big tuition bills from his children attending Berkeley Preparatory School, a private school in Town 'N Country.

That burden was eased as Lowder sewed up Chillura by raising the Tampa CEO's base salary from $165,000 to $220,000 a year.

Gonzalez was far more taken with Rothman than Chillura.

Colonial lawyers suggest that Gonzalez made a $100,000 donation to a favorite Rothman cause. "Mr. Gonzalez was going to make a contribution to the Academy of the Holy Names and he was going to get close to Mr. Rothman," says Chillura.

Rothman invited Gonzalez to a Tampa Bay Buccaneers football game at Raymond James Stadium.

Prida says he watched a Bucs game with Gonzalez from Rothman's skybox in 2002. Gonzalez ended up plowing $1 million into the Bank of St. Petersburg, according to regulatory records. Today, he is chairman of the bank. Rothman is vice chairman. Prida sits with them on the board of directors.

Since the arrival of Gonzalez's investors, the Bank of St. Petersburg has opened two offices in Tampa and is readying another location in downtown St. Petersburg.

With fewer than $175 million in assets, the bank is feeling the added expense acutely. The bank will report a $1.8 million loss for 2004, according to President and CEO Joseph L. Caballero. But it made money in January and he projects a profit for the first quarter of this year.

But Rothman appears thrilled with Gonzalez's assistance to the bank.

On the heels of the successful private placement, Rothman arranged for the Bank of St. Petersburg to pay Gonzalez $100,000 a year. That was the same pay Gonzalez had taken down as Colonial Bank Tampa Bay chairman.

Unlike with Chillura, however, Gonzalez didn't have to ask for it

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