Wednesday, December 13, 2017
Business

Cleverly promoted C1 Bank looks to grow in the spotlight

ST. PETERSBURG

How might a newly revived community bank attract attention in a crowded market dominated by giant financial institutions like Bank of America?

One small-fry bank is confronting that big challenge by:

• Aligning with a popular local sports franchise to become the official "Pewter Power" bank of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

• Countering perceived gouging by big banks by paying customers $5 a month to open a checking account (for the first year). This at a time the media demonize big banks for charging customers $5 a month for their debit cards.

• Appealing to instant gratification. Rather than listing another five-year CD with a ho-hum 1.2 percent return, it offers to give well-heeled Floridians — immediately — the choice of a 2012 Mercedes in exchange for their putting $1 million into that five-year CD. The $60,000 in interest earned on that investment covers the bank's cost of the new vehicle.

The novelty of the Mercedes campaign alone spurred coverage by the Wall Street Journal, Fox News, Detroit Free Press, South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Daily Telegraph in Australia and all sorts of business journals and auto blogs.

• Growing while many other financial institutions shrink by buying troubled banks around Tampa Bay and adding tens of millions of dollars to recapitalize and make them healthy again.

• Adopting a snappy name to replace the generic-sounding "Community Bank."

That, in a nutshell, is the game plan of freshly branded "C1 Bank" run by CEO and co-owner Trevor Burgess. He says "C1" was picked because it's short, simple and plays off the bank's credo (printed on the bank's business cards) of "Clients 1st. Community 1st."

With his three Brazilian investment partners, Burgess acquired several underperforming area community banks. So far, he's built a bank with 21 (and counting) branches stretching from Pasco to Charlotte counties.

Last week, C1 Bank won final approval to acquire Tampa's Palm Bank. At the same time, C1, formerly based in Lakewood Ranch in Manatee County, picked a downtown St. Petersburg site as its new corporate headquarters. C1 leased vacant street-level space in the Tampa Bay Times headquarters building.

"I think we have a lot to learn from companies like (fast-food-casual dining chain) Chipotle or Apple," says Burgess, 39, a Dartmouth College graduate who worked as business consultant and, later, for Morgan Stanley, helping take companies public. "They keep things simple. They don't have 500 products.

"What they do have is great. We don't need 10 checking accounts." C1, he says, offers two checking accounts. One is basic, and the other handles more complex financial needs.

• • •

Burgess worked at Morgan Stanley when he met Marcelo Lima, a Brazilian businessman and investor. They hit it off so well that Burgess later joined Lima's closely held investment firm, Artesia Investimentos, based in Sao Paulo. A team of four investors, including Burgess, now looks for business opportunities.

The quartet saw its chance during the financial chaos of 2008 when Wall Street firms Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers collapsed. With Burgess as point man, they began looking at struggling Florida banks to buy and fix in time to benefit from Florida's economic recovery.

Burgess says they looked at 35 banks across the state before finding Community Bank. Run by Bill Sedgeman Jr., the bank had suffered not from bad lending, Burgess says, but from good loans that had deteriorated from the unusual severity of the economic decline.

In late 2009, Burgess and his co-investors bought 80 percent of Community Bank (the rest is owned by local investors), recapitalized it with $15 million and began cleaning up its loan portfolio. In 2010, the bank recruited prominent area banker Katie Pemble, formerly with the Bank of St. Petersburg and Bank of America, to serve as president.

Since then, C1 Bank has acquired and recapitalized First Community Bank Corp. of America in Pinellas County and, last week, added Palm Bank with its three branches in South Tampa.

Those additions will put C1 Bank close to $1 billion in assets, 200 employees and 21 branches.

• • •

C1 Bank is not your typical Florida banking deal, where investors buy several weak banks, combine them with new capital and sell them off for a profit.

Burgess says his Artesia investment firm does not raise outside funds from investors and has no fixed timetable to pay anyone back. The four investors simply invest their own money.

So far, C1's earned a mid-level grade of "three stars" on Bauer Financial's 0- to 5-star ranking of financial strength.

"We take the long view," says Burgess, noting his partners have owned some companies for more than a decade. "This is not a buy-and-flip strategy that Florida's so used to seeing."

Robert Trigaux can be reached at [email protected]

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