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Business Observer Friday, Jul. 18, 2014 4 years ago

Former bankers gobble up tasty firms

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Apparently there really is life, and a sweet one at that, after banking.

Apparently there really is life, and a sweet one at that, after banking.

Officials with Fort Lauderdale-based BBX Capital, former owners of BankAtlantic, which once had 19 branches in the Tampa region, have taken that theory to the Willy Wonka extreme: BBX, through a subsidiary, BBX Sweet Holdings, is buying chocolate companies.

It most recently acquired the assets of Solana Beach, Calif.-based Jer's Chocolates. Terms of the deal, announced July 1, weren't disclosed. It follows the acquisition of Boynton Beach-based chocolate manufacturer Williams & Bennett from earlier this year and Lake Worth-based Hoffman's Choclates from late last year. All three chocolate businesses have large gift and corporate sales departments, in addition to significant mail-order operations. “We believe Jer's Chocolates is an ideal fit to our platform and we welcome CEO Jerry Swain and the Jer's brand to our family of BBX Capital companies,” BBX Capital President Jarett Levan says in a release.

BankAtlantic has a colorful history in Florida punctuated by fast growth. Founded under the name Atlantic Federal Savings and Loan Association in 1952, the bank had more than $3 billion in assets and 100 branches statewide by 2007. Along the way it grew from southeast Florida to the Tampa region, where it had at least $330 million in assets. It also signed a deal for naming rights on the Florida Panthers hockey arena in Sunrise.

On the flip side, the bank was involved in some notable lawsuits and unusual cases. It sued Lutz-based banking industry analyst Dick Bove in 2008 for defamation, for example, after he published a report, “Who is Next?” that called out several troubled lenders. Bove and BankAtlantic settled in 2010. Forbes magazine, also in 2010, named BankAtlantic in an article about several firms that allegedly did financial deals with Colombian drug dealers. The magazine reported the bank settled with the U.S. Justice Department.

Pittsburgh-based PNC Bank bought BankAtlantic's Tampa area branches in early 2011. Winston-Salem-based BB&T bought BankAtlantic in 2012; the arena in Sunrise is now the BB&T Center.

And BBX lives on, through chocolate and several other ventures, from commercial real estate holdings to vacation resorts. The firm, traded on the New York Stock Exchange (symbol: BBX, recent price: $19.34) had $416.89 million in assets through March 31, according to public filings.

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