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Joe Chillura of USAmeriBank plots big growth by thinking locally

Joe Chillura, 45, CEO of USAmeriBank, stands inside a new branch in Ybor City, the first community bank there in years. Opened five years ago, USAmeriBank has an operations center in Largo, 10 branches in Tampa Bay and up to $2.2 billion in assets.

KATHLEEN FLYNN | Times

Joe Chillura, 45, CEO of USAmeriBank, stands inside a new branch in Ybor City, the first community bank there in years. Opened five years ago, USAmeriBank has an operations center in Largo, 10 branches in Tampa Bay and up to $2.2 billion in assets.

For someone who runs a bank that sounds like it has a national footprint, USAmeriBank CEO Joe Chillura clearly relishes being the consummate local.

At 45, Chillura hasn't strayed far from his South Tampa roots as he's maneuvered through the banking world.

At Clearwater-based USAmeriBank, he likes to hire employees closely tied to the communities where they work. One such recruit is longtime Tampa banker M.G. "Manny" Alvarez Jr., the former chairman of Manufacturers Bank, who helped USAmeriBank line up customers who brought millions of dollars in deposits as it opened a new branch in Ybor City this year. It is the first community bank in the historic district in years.

Most of Florida's bank deposits may still be controlled by out-of-state megabanks with shifting mid-level managers. But the quick growth of community banks like USAmeriBank and C1 Bank may be catching their eye.

Five years ago, Chillura and fellow Tampa banker Brad McMurtrey opened USAmeriBank with the financial help of well-known Chicago banker Harrison Steans and his daughter, Jennifer Steans, who is currently the bank's chairwoman.

Today, the fledgling bank is up to $2.2 billion in assets, including a 15-branch Alabama operation called Aliant Bank that it bought last year, but plans to keep running under the Aliant brand.

In a recent interview with the Tampa Bay Times, Chillura talked about the importance of using local connections, whether it's a matter of taking on the big banks or keeping a certain professional baseball team happy.

USAmeriBank opened in 2007, right before credit markets seized up, small-business lending dried up and we had the Wall Street financial collapse. In retrospect, was your timing off?

Our timing was actually very good. The whole charter process that we went through was in late 2006, beginning of 2007. Shortly after we were approved, the (bank charter approvals) came to a screeching halt. We were freshly capitalized and able to attract clients (when) other banks weren't lending.

How big is the bank now?

We've got 400 employees here and in Alabama, a little over 200. We have an operations center in Largo and 10 branches in Tampa Bay, in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties. We have a loan production office in Lakewood Ranch.

I understand you've become very systematic in how you open a new branch.

We typically hire the branch manager and the staff somewhere between three and six months in advance of opening the office. Then we start utilizing their contacts and their networks to start attracting business prior to even opening.

We've never opened any of the banks without having at least $5 million in deposits in the bank or in the wagon. We really build banks around people so when we identify a location is (simultaneous) with identifying a very solid banker we think fits.

So you followed that same process before opening the Ybor branch?

In Ybor, we were up to about $5 million in deposits before we opened and we're around $15 million now. We'll have added over $50 million in deposits in the three offices we've opened in the last six months.

Why keep the Aliant Bank name?

First and foremost, the Aliant name had a reputation as being a fixture in the Alabama business community. It's got a 100-year-old history; USAmeriBank, even here, only has a five-year history. It's not like we're going up there saying, "We're Bank of America." We're still trying to get people to know who we are here.

At the rate the bank is growing, has selling it become one of your goals?

Our goal is to grow by a couple branches a year. We were intending to grow this 10 percent a year but we're doing a lot better than that.

We're less than a 2 percent market share in this MSA. The potential is to get to 4 to 5 percent within the next several years. I think we've got a lot of room to grow. We're not at that point (of selling).

What comes after Ybor?

We've got a site under contract in West Shore. We're also looking at Palm Harbor … and west Tampa. And we've been poking around in Sarasota. We're talking to several bankers in Sarasota. We've identified a couple people that could be our retail branch manager … but we have to find the right banker to help us from a commercial banking standpoint. We need a rainmaker for commercial banking.

During your banking career, at one point you ran Tampa Bay operations for Alabama-based Colonial Bank, which got swamped by bad real estate loans and was closed by regulators in August of 2009. What happened?

The lesson learned there is you never want to outgrow your management. They did real estate. That's what they did. That's all they did.

You left Colonial in 2007, a while before the real estate meltdown and the bank's failure.

Yes, but the writing was on the wall. You could see what was coming in commercial real estate.

What lessons from Colonial are you applying at USAmeriBank?

To diversify the portfolio. More specifically, hiring the best and the brightest in every area of the bank to make sure you are able to manage the risk. As we've all seen, anything can happen. My real value here is attracting high-quality talent. As a result … we've grown substantially the first five years, but we've done it responsibly.

Is the economy improving?

It's getting better. It's getting more competitive among the banks. Three years ago it used to be we were winning most every deal. The big banks weren't lending. … Now the big banks are out there again.

Who's your primary competition?

Our competitors over the past four or five years have been the big banks, the top five here. But we have so much room to grow in market share even when there's more competition. We can live off the crumbs that fall out of their mouths, and that's what we've been doing.

You've got a family history in politics with your father (former Hillsborough County Commissioner and Tampa City Council member Joe Chillura). Any interest in running for office?

No, but I'd like to get more involved in the community.

We've talked about how much time and energy a family takes and how much time and energy building a business takes. Now that the business is maturing — we're by no sense there yet but it's no longer a startup — but as it's become a meaningful player in the market that has allowed me to spend more time out in the community getting involved with different boards. We're very engaged in the Ybor initiative and along with that comes the new (baseball) stadium initiative … I'm very interested in making sure the Rays are comfortable staying in our community.

What are the odds the Rays will move from Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg to a Tampa location?

I would say if we're going to keep them, which I think we will, we've got a 75 percent chance of getting them to come over here. I really think the people who are the decisionmakers in Pinellas County would probably understand that keeping the team is more important than necessarily having them in one spot.

Downtown St. Pete has so many things going for it; the Rays are a very small piece of that puzzle. That real estate could be utilized for all sorts of things. It's a huge redevelopment opportunity in my mind.

I love downtown St. Petersburg, but I also love downtown Tampa and you want the team to survive. I love going to games, but it's empty when you go. That venue itself is challenging.

Jeff Harrington can be reached at jharrington@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8242.

Joe Chillura of USAmeriBank plots big growth by thinking locally 05/19/12 [Last modified: Saturday, May 19, 2012 4:32am]
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