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Three bankers — all longtime CEOs and previous bank founders — join forces at one institution

CenterState Bank targets more market share on the west coast of Florida.

  • By Mark Gordon
  • | 6:00 a.m. April 20, 2018
  • | 2 Free Articles Remaining!
Lori Sax. Brian Hall, Shaun Merriman and Dan Hager are the three top leaders for CenterState Bank in the Sarasota-Bradenton region.
Lori Sax. Brian Hall, Shaun Merriman and Dan Hager are the three top leaders for CenterState Bank in the Sarasota-Bradenton region.
  • Finance
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The standard model when a big bank, especially a publicly-traded one, buys a smaller, community bank, is to find ways to cut excess and duplicative services and personnel.

Polk County-based CenterState Bank, a publicly traded bank with $7.1 billion in assets, does things a bit differently with its acquisitions. While eliminating some of the redundancies, CenterState — on a decade-long acquisition binge — places a premium on local management.

“It’s a decentralized business model that emphasizes local leadership and decision making from our bankers who are closest to the client,” says CenterState President and CEO John Corbett. “No one from a headquarters 100 miles away can appreciate the needs of Sarasota or Bradenton better than someone who lives and raises their family there.”

That model is on full display with the former Gateway Financial Holdings of Florida.

CenterState acquired Gateway, including Sarasota-based Gateway Bank of Southwest Florida, in a $142 million deal in March 2017. Veteran area banker Shaun Merriman, who founded Gateway in 2006, was named regional president of CenterState’s West Florida division. Joining Merriman on his senior leadership team is Brian Hall, a Gateway executive who co-founded Sarasota-based Sabal Palm Bank in 2006 and Dan Hager, who helped launch First America Bank in Bradenton in 2004. (Fort Pierce-based Harbor Community Bank bought First America in 2014; CenterState bought Harbor in 2017.)  

The trio has run other banks and divisions, and combined has close to 100 years of industry experience. Hall is CenterState’s Area Executive-Sarasota County, while Hagen is Area Executive-Manatee County. “We’ve all competed against each other, but in somewhat different markets,” says Merriman. “And we could have worked other places. We all had other opportunities.”

But the pull to stay with CenterState, at least early on, was twofold: The chance to work together and the ability to have lots of freedom, under CenterState’s local-first culture. “They have given us a lot of opportunity to use our knowledge and skills,” says Hall. “That’s more uncommon than common” when a big bank buys a smaller bank.

Merriman, who also ran Sarasota-area divisions of AmSouth and SouthTrust prior to founding Gateway, says autonomy like that at this stage of his career is a big deal. “I have more lending authority at CenterState than I had a Gateway,” says Merriman.

Merriman’s division has about $1.5 billion in deposits, and 40 loan relationship managers. That includes 30 loan officials in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, and a loan production office in Fort Myers.  

‘People bank with people, not necessarily brick and mortar buildings.’ Shaun Merriman, CenterState Bank

One of the biggest challenges now, say the bankers, is branding and name recognition in a new market. “We have to get our name to be top of mind,” says Hall.

Other obstacles include a regulatory environment that, while softening, remains cumbersome and costly for full compliance. Hager adds credit unions, particularly ones buying banks, are a competitive challenge.

Part of the bankers’ response to these challenges is to outhustle others on the networking circuit. “People bank with people,” says Merriman, “not necessarily brick and mortar buildings.”

Another challenge the trio has overcome is to shelf egos — not necessarily a cinch to people used to having the top title. The bankers talk at least every other day, if not everyday, with the big picture in mind. “If you’re not going to be collaborative, you’re not going to be a great fit here,” says Hall. “Ego cannot get in the way at this stage of our careers.” 



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