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Business Observer Friday, Nov. 7, 2014 3 years ago

Tenured banker

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Gerri Moll says the region's economy has bounced back faster than she expected. Small-business lending is leading the recovery.
by: Jean Gruss Contributing Writer

Gerri Moll's name badge says she's been an employee of Bank of America since 1984.

“It is a conversation starter,” says Moll, the bank's president for the area that includes Lee and Collier counties. She oversees 45 branches with about $3 billion in deposits as well as $1.5 billion under management with U.S. Trust and Merrill Lynch.

In an era of turmoil in the financial service industry, it's rare that any bank manager stays in one place too long. In fact, many long-tenured bankers have left the industry after so many rounds of mergers, acquisitions and cutbacks.

Moll's long tenure combined with her knowledge of the market gives her special insight on the trends in Southwest Florida. “I've lived through two real estate downturns,” says the Barnett Bank alumna.

But even Moll was surprised by the economic rebound. She estimated it would take about six years for the real estate market to rebound, and it took half that time. “We underestimated the national and global appeal of Southwest Florida,” she says. “It feels like we're back to a normal level of confidence.”

One positive sign: The bank saw a 26% increase in small-business lending last year over the previous year, so Moll doubled the small-business lending staff to a dozen loan officers. “From 2008 to 2011, a lot of people were trying to hunker down and survive,” she says. “In 2012, we started to see things turn.”

Initially, credit-worthy customers were tough to find. “The people who qualified for credit were not interested in credit,” Moll acknowledges. Now, well-managed businesses are taking on more debt to expand. They're borrowing for needs such as working capital and commercial real estate, she says.

Every area of the economy is growing, Moll says. “It's honestly been across the board,” she says.

On the commercial real estate side, Moll says she's been encouraged by recent appraisals of buildings that have come in at or above the selling price. Investors continue to deploy cash to make acquisitions, a sign that they believe in the stability of the market.

To boost lending and grow the money management business, Moll says she's hired specialists in small-business lending, mortgage and wealth management to be housed in each branch. “The banking center isn't just to make a deposit,” Moll says.

Moll says she's encouraged by the growing presence of Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers as a regional economic engine. She was a founding trustee of the university, which now has 14,000 students. “We really think the university can be a great convener,” she says.

While Naples and Fort Myers may have different cultural and business climates, the areas of Bonita Springs and Estero between the two cities are filling in to create a single metropolitan area. Indeed, Hertz relocated its global headquarters from New Jersey to Estero, where it is building a new corporate campus. “Bonita and Estero have done a lot to build bridges,” Moll says.

Follow Jean Gruss on Twitter @JeanGruss

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