Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Merger Momentum

  • Industries
  • Finance
  • Share

Business. Whitney Bank, Tampa Bay, Sarasota-Bradenton
Industry. Banking
Key. Bank hopes to capitalize on its size to grow market share.

Eric Obeck is one of the few bank executives on the Gulf Coast who can call a $20 billion asset institution home.

The president of the Tampa Bay region for Whitney Bank, soon to officially be Hancock Bank, Obeck is indeed in some rare space. Way above Whitney/Hancock are behemoths like Bank of America and Wells Fargo or SunTrust and BB&T. Those banks have hundreds of billions, if not trillions of dollars in assets.

Way below Whitney/Hancock are 52 Gulf Coast-based community banks with less than $1 billion in assets. There are four locally based banks with more than $1 billion in assets, and only one, St. Petersburg-based Raymond James Bank, at $7.9 billion, has more than $3 billion.

That leaves just a few regional banks with a Gulf Coast presence that compete in even a remotely similar asset size with Obeck's bank, which Hancock bought earlier this year. That list includes Louisiana-based IberiaBank, which has offices in Sarasota and Naples and $11.3 billion in assets.

Obeck's foremost challenge now, though, is to turn the uniqueness of the asset base into a profitable and sustainable strategy. He isn't going to do that by trumpeting size over substance, like some bigger national competitors do.

The plan will instead focus on making big feel small.

“The Whitney/Hancock organization is among the largest banks in the Southeast and among the top one-half of 1% of all banks in the nation in terms of asset size,” Obeck says. “However, it is our intent not to regionalize, but rather 'localize' the bank.”

The localize strategy, says Obeck, starts with hiring bankers who keenly understand the Whitney/Hancock way. For Obeck, that means executives who aren't hesitant to make decisions and are vigorous networkers. “We very much aspire to have a real local connection,” Obeck says.

Obeck also seeks local leaders who have previously run bank divisions or departments.

Two executives in the Sarasota-Manatee region, for example, K. Michael Moschella and Christopher Pennewill, fit that target. Moschella, formerly the Sarasota-Manatee area executive for BB&T, runs the Gulf Coast South division of Obeck's region, which is also made up of Sarasota and Bradenton. Whitney/Hancock hired Moschella last month.

Pennewill, a past chairman of the Manatee Chamber of Commerce, has been a regional credit administrator with Whitney since February 2010. Pennewill was the Manatee County president for Superior Bank before he was hired at Whitney.

To be sure, attending Chamber lunches and boasting about local control isn't a novel concept for Gulf Coast bankers. Obeck realizes this, which is where he says Whitney/Hancock's asset position and heft will be key. The bank never took any TARP or federal government bailout money, says Obeck.

“Not all banks are strong right now,” says Obeck. “A lot of banks are being closely watched by regulators.”

'Care and respect'
The Whitney/Hancock region Obeck watches over stretches from Orlando through Tampa, and south to Venice.

There are 18 branches on the Gulf Coast and six more in the Orlando region. The Tampa area has 11 offices, including two de novo branches in Hillsborough County that have opened since 2010. The bank has six branches in the Sarasota-Manatee region, plus a trust office in Venice.

Gulfport, Miss.-based Hancock Holding Co. bought New Orleans-based Whitney Holding Corp. in an all-stock $1.5 billion acquisition that closed June 4. The deal formed a bank with a combined $20 billon in assets and $12 billion in loans through a network of more than 300 branches.

The Whitney name in Florida will eventually give way to Hancock. The transition, says Obeck, should be complete by the first quarter of 2012. Projects include going to one software program, employee training and new signs.

The bank plans to grow its physical presence in the region after the merger is complete. Obeck is scouting sites on the Gulf Coast for more branches, and he also hopes to hire at least four business bankers in the next year. Still, he's not in a big rush.

“We want to grow with a great deal of care and respect,” says Obeck. “We're not going to snap our fingers and grow market share.”

The steady approach is a core part of Whitney's overall strategy. The Gulf Coast division did just that when it sought more business from the entities in and around the region's two seaports. “The Port of Tampa and Port of Manatee have great long-term potential,” Obeck told the Review in 2009.

The division has also steadily grown its base in trust assets over the past few years, though executives maintain the bank's focus will continue to wrap around businesses.

Loan growth
Moschella, the recently named lead executive for the Sarasota-Manatee area, contends that's where the rapport-building side fits into the strategy. “Having a relationship with a banker,” says Moschella, “should be more than just a phone call when you need a loan.”

Moschella and Obeck add that local bank executives can make their own decisions on loans, without overemphasizing basic credit scores like some bigger banks do. The idea there, says Obeck, is to not reject most loan possibilities that come the bank's way. Says Obeck: “We can look at every individual loan and treat it differently.”

Obeck says another difference between Whitney/Hancock and some other large regional competitors is the chain of command process. Obeck says it's easy to go from issue to answer. “We're pretty flat,” says Obeck. “If I need some input, I can go to the CEO.”

That be-nimble, move-fast, entrepreneurial mindset isn't new to Moschella or Obeck. Moschella owned a health and fitness club in Columbia, S.C., before he went into banking.

And Obeck ran three businesses in the Tampa-St. Petersburg area prior to his 2008 appointment at Whitney. He founded a dental practice management company, an e-commerce website for fishing gear and a marketing firm. “It's a great perspective,” Obeck says about his entrepreneur days, “to have sat on the other side of the table.”

Obeck, however, isn't a banking novice. A Virginia native, Obeck was an executive for Barnett Bank in Tampa for a decade. He left after Bank of America bought Barnett.

Barnett is known statewide for schooling legions of bankers on the idea that precise execution of details in a bank's business plan is the only way to sustained success. Obeck learned that there, and the top executives at Whitney, like Moschella, also get it.

“We will have to have better people, better service and be better trained,” Moschella says. “If we don't execute on that, customers will find someone else.”


Related Articles

  • December 13, 2013
Banks get bigger
  • September 12, 2014
Tampa Beachhead
  • April 11, 2014
'Art of War'
  • September 10, 2009
Delinquency Dance
  • September 20, 2013
Lends on the Mends
  • April 11, 2014
Credit Check
  • April 5, 2013
Playing a happier tune