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Business Observer Thursday, Dec. 10, 2009 12 years ago

Old Faces, New Places

USAmeriBank has had good timing from the beginning, opening their doors just after the real estate market had done its worst to area banks. After building a team of veteran bankers, leadership is looking to continue capitalizing on a timely market entry by outmaneuvering distracted competitors.
by: Alex Walsh Web Editor

Amid the tumult of 2009, one truism has become exceedingly relevant: in these times, cash is indeed king.

Joe Chillura knows it. And with businesses frantically searching for capital, the chief executive officer of Largo-based USAmeriBank is making sure his bank does its best to meet the need.

Having opened the bank in early 2007, USAmeriBank is one of several younger banks that has been able to avoid many of the problems caused by bad loans in the difficult real estate markets on the Gulf Coast.

From an asset standpoint, the bank has thrived, even. Four of USAmeriBank's five branches already claim more than $100 million in deposits; the fifth, the less-than-one-year-old Brandon office, already $65 million in deposits.

Part of the reason is Chillura's focus. “Depository relationships are becoming more important than loans,” he says, especially while customers continue to look for security in a risky financial environment.

Eventually, those deposits will shrink down. But that will likely happen just as business picks up. “The net effect will be positive,” Chillura says, as many depositors will turn around and use that money to “do the things small business owners do.”

These recent successes could well be turned into a major long-term advantage, given the competition's current issues.

“A lot of bankers are inwardly focused,” Chillura suggests. He thinks many of his bank's competitors are being forced to resolve their own balance sheet issues, taking away from their ability to lend effectively.

As a result, Chillura sees a good opportunity to lend in this market. He considers USAmeriBank's willingness to lend to be an advantage over competitors.

To make the most of his bank's unique position, USAmeriBank executives have also made a concerted effort to assemble a strong team of veteran bankers, as one consequence of a changing banking environment has been a top-flight talent pool.

As each additional bank failure hits the region, more and more highly-skilled employees “are getting rolled up into acquisitions,” Chillura says.

After the merger or acquisition is completed, many of those “rolled up” bankers start to miss the impact they used to have at their old bank. Chillura thinks former employees of smaller community banks are likely finding it “harder to have an impact, or to be entrepreneurial,” in new settings.

USAmeriBank is capitalizing — figuratively — on the trend, having added multiple veteran bankers, each with decades of experience to their names. Chillura says quality hires are a must for any bank: “Banking is a relationship business, and people bank with people,” he says.

Those new hires will assist with what Chillura suggests the bank's main challenge will be going forward: convincing potential clients that their money is safe at a relatively young bank.

That'll be especially difficult given the aforementioned trend in consolidation the industry is currently facing, but “good bankers help,” Chillura says.
Even after convincing the client that the bank has staying power, however, the cost of moving a loan can also be difficult to overcome. “It's very expensive to move loans,” he admits. “You've either got to be really mad at your bank, or you've got to really need something.”

But Chillura is confident that there are businesses out there that fit that profile. (Many of them were clients of USAmeriBank's newest employees in their previous positions.)

His confidence in USAmeriBank's own future is apparent, as well as the bank's plans to expand, adding 35 new employees and two branches.

At the same time, business continues to be tough for the industry as a whole. To rebound, Chillura recognizes that bankers need to regain confidence and stabilize the liquidity environment so businesses can execute their own plans for growth.

Aside from their own unique strategies and characteristics, however, USAmeriBank's end goal reads similarly to any other bank's: “We want to be in a position to help clients grow when the time is right.”

Everyone agrees that that time can't come soon enough.

Bama bound
While USAmeriBank is focused on the Tampa market, the bank's holding company, USAmeriBancorp, Inc., is expanding the company footprint to Alabama.

In November, USAmeriBancorp invested $25 million in Aliant Financial Corp., the holding company for Alexander City, Ala.-based Aliant Bank.

The transaction, which gave USAmeriBancorp a minority ownership stake, aimed to take advantage of growth opportunities in Birmingham, Montgomery, and Alexander City, all areas served by Aliant.

USAmeriBank Chief Executive Officer Joe Chillura points to diversification as a major benefit of the move. “Alabama's economy is less dependent on real estate and construction than Florida's, so while the housing downturn has certainly hurt Alabama's economy, the impact hasn't been as dramatic there,” he says.

Chillura also acknowledges “a vibrant industrial base” in Aliant's service area from which UsAmeriBancorp will hope to benefit. 

The company says the transaction will not impact day-to-day operations at Aliant. However, USAmeriBancorp will be given two seats on Aliant's board.

— Alex Walsh

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