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Bank survives industry shakeout, surpasses $1B in assets

The Bank of Central Florida, which was founded just prior to a crippling downturn, looks to grab market share in Tampa Bay.

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  • | 5:00 a.m. December 12, 2023
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Paul Noris and Lauren Fernandez are leading expansion of the Bank of Central Florida into Hillsborough County.
Paul Noris and Lauren Fernandez are leading expansion of the Bank of Central Florida into Hillsborough County.
Photo by Mark Wemple
  • Tampa Bay-Lakeland
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A Lakeland-based bank that has doubled its assets under management in the last five years to eclipse $1 billion recently broke ground on its fifth branch location.

The Bank of Central Florida will soon include an office at 201 South Howard Ave. in Tampa on its directory. It’s the bank’s first standalone location in the city, complementing its smaller operation within the One North Dale Mabry building. Its other offices are in Orlando, Plant City, Winter Haven and its Lakeland headquarters. 

The expansion represents the continuation of a strategy put in place 16 years ago when the bank was founded.

“Our original business plan was to consider Lakeland to be the center of the universe,” says Bank of Central Florida CEO Paul Noris. When the bank opened in March 2007, Noris says 95% of capital was raised locally, in the neighborhood of $23 million. 

Indeed, BCF started banking just before one of the most challenging economic environments in Florida’s history. But looking back, Noris doesn’t remember things being quite so harrowing.

“In a lot of ways it was perfect timing,” he says. “We didn’t have any legacy bad loans, we didn’t have any charge offs. Our competitors were not doing a good job taking care of their good clients.”

For Noris, the sales pitch for new customers basically wrote itself. “When we first opened the bank, I’d ask [potential clients], ‘When’s the last time you heard from your bank?’”

Today, the Bank of Central Florida manages more than $1 billion in assets, according to the latest quarterly available from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., up from $492 million five years earlier. Its loan portfolio has more than doubled over that same time period, to $677 million in net loans and leases — and that’s all high-quality business.

“We don’t have one 30 day-past due in the entire portfolio,” Noris says. And not for a lack of taking on risk. As he puts it, “It’s not like we’re not loaning any money. But we’re doing a good job of picking the right people to bank.”

They’re also picking the right businesses, another tactic that has stayed in line with the bank’s original strategy.

“When we opened our bank we wanted to try to build a balance sheet like a regional bank,” Noris explains. “Community banks are typically extremely real estate heavy. We do that type of lending, but we’re really interested in all facets of lending.”

BCF’s current loan portfolio reflects that stated approach. As of the third quarter, BCF was servicing slightly more than $325 million in commercial real estate loans, representing nearly half its total net loans and leases, with residential real estate accounting for about a quarter.

In addition to good timing and good lending practices, BCF is benefitting from its ability to maintain its place as a truly local Florida bank, at a time when those sorts of institutions are becoming increasingly rare. “The landscape of community banking has changed dramatically,” Noris says of the time since BCF was founded.

In March 2007, there were 308 FDIC-insured banking institutions doing business in Florida, 211 of which were state chartered. “Today that number is 58,” Noris says. 

“I think there’s been a concerted effort by the government to say, ‘We want less banks,’” Noris says. And that has had consequences for customers. 

“When you are that owner-managed company and you really want to be able to sit down with somebody and have a conversation, it’s harder and harder to get that,” he says. “When you are sitting down with a relationship manager versus a market executive, for an owner-managed company, that’s a big priority.” 

“It creates space for us and we’re going to try to take advantage of that,” Noris says.

The other tailwind propelling BCF’s growth is one with which Gulf Coast entrepreneurs are all too familiar — one that tempts hyperbole from Noris.

“As Tampa Bay continues to grow, seeing what’s transpired here is absolutely insane,” he says.

And the regulatory trend in the Tampa Bay market is representative of what’s happening in the broader market. “When we opened our bank in 2007, there were [dozens of] community banks in Tampa Bay,” Noris says. “There’s a lot less of them in Tampa today than there were 15 years ago.”

With all those factors driving success, it doesn’t seem there are many reasons to dramatically change the company’s direction.

“We’re pretty committed to the vision and strategy that we have,” Noris confirms. That could involve southerly expansion toward Pinellas or northerly to Daytona, but acquisition - either as buyer or target - isn’t currently being considered seriously.

Instead, the plan for continued growth is as traditional as it gets for a bank. In Noris’ words: “Today we’re sitting on cash. It’ll show up in our financials over the next quarter or so. The way we have positioned our balance sheet, we are still open for business.”

Correction: This article has been updated to correct the spelling of Lauren Fernandez.


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