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One Step Ahead


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  • | 7:45 a.m. February 22, 2013
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Shortly after USAmeriBank was founded in Clearwater six years ago, CEO Joe Chillura and his advisers spotted a void the mid-sized bank could fill. They provided loans to Tampa Bay companies whose needs were too big for small banks, and too small to command attentive service from big banks.

The strategy worked. Within five years, the independent bank had $1 billion in assets, and it was still growing. By the end of 2012, those assets more than doubled, to $2.5 billion, and the bank's work force swelled from 33 in 2007 to more than 450 employees. Through the dark days of the recession, USAmeriBank shone like a lantern for local entrepreneurs by investing in their growth with loans at a time when many big banks refused to lend.

But the bank's rise did not go unnoticed in the finance community, and before long, rivals leapt into the mid-size realm, eager to snatch market share with competitive loan rates and terms. To perserve its healthy balance sheet, USAmeriBank expanded its footprint, by opening new Hillsborough County branches and acquiring an Alabama bank. The bank then made another strategic move in December, when it diversified into the insurance business with its acquisition of Connelly, Carlisle, Fields & Nichols insurance agency (CCF&N).

Incorporating the insurance company into the bank brings a wealth of new revenue sources from the brokerage, and a steady stream of opportunities to develop deposits and loans. For existing bank customers, it adds service, says Chillura, and that could preserve the banking relationships at a time when USAmeriBank is facing aggressive competition. “The competition was not real active in the marketplace two, three years ago," Chillura says. "They're now very active, and looking for our business.”

John Connelly, founding director of the insurance agency, now runs the insurance division as a bank employee. He estimates the agency's value at roughly $20 million. Connelly also is a shareholder of USAmeriBank and one of its original organizers. “He's been involved from day one,” says Chillura.

With 75 employees, the insurance agency brings a slate of coverage options, from commercial risk management to employee benefits and property and casualty insurance. CCF&N's clients include physicians' groups and legal practices, manufacturers and distributors, and housing companies, among others. “We ensure more than 650 churches,” says Connelly.

He projects 17% sales growth this year for the agency. “A lot of our customers are acquiring other businesses,” he says, and his agents expect to insure many of them.

The agents add value to USAmeriBank by making it easier for clients to insure a variety of properties and companies, says Chillura. In lending, an in-house agency can speed up the financing process. For example, if one of the bank's clients wants to buy a beach house, the bank may approve a loan, but documentation could stall because beach houses are hard to insure. With its industry contacts, Connelly's brokerage may be able to quickly find coverage and get the paperwork to the lenders without delay.

The bank brands all of its insurance business through CCF&N, located in Clearwater and Tampa. Agents moved into upstairs offices at the bank's Ybor City branch, housed in a historic building formerly occupied by Columbia Bank. USAmeriBank recently made news when it added a sign reminiscent of its predecessor's “Lady Columbia” sign.

Now that USAmeriBank has absorbed the insurance agency and Aliant Bank in Alabama, the next step is to focus on core operations, says Chillura. “We have all the products and technology to take advantage of an upswing in the economy, so we're really focusing on execution right now. There's no real acquisition opportunities that we're hunting.”

However, the bank is opening a new Westshore office in March. And its representatives are calling on clients from restaurateurs to dentists, offering loans or insurance policies for that new boat or small plane, as they seek to grow the business organically. The lenders will track entrepreneurs who are expanding their businesses, buying a new real estate parcel or merging with a supplier. They will market property insurance or health benefits for new employees.

Chillura, meanwhile, will keep a wary eye on his rivals, banks whose representatives aren't shy about offering their own loans at hard-to-beat rates. “We're getting lots of pressure on pricing from the other banks,” he says. “They would love to take a lot of our clients away.”

 

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