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Longtime Pasco County banker Phil Chesnut retires

Phil Chesnut, managing director of Republic Bank in Port Richey, is retiring. His career began at the age of 18 at Ellis First National Bank of New Port Richey.

BRENDAN FITTERER | Times

Phil Chesnut, managing director of Republic Bank in Port Richey, is retiring. His career began at the age of 18 at Ellis First National Bank of New Port Richey.

PORT RICHEY — When Phil Chesnut started his banking career, accounts came only with names, no numbers. Ledgers were balanced by hand. Hours were 9 to 1.

This was 1963, and the 18-year-old Chesnut had taken a summer job at Ellis First National Bank of New Port Richey, then the only bank in West Pasco.

Fast-forward to today. Technology has dramatically changed bank operations — not to mention customer expectations. And Chesnut's resume reflects something else: The changes in the ever-evolving banking landscape.

The Ellis banks, where he worked for more than 20 years, became part of North Carolina-based NCNB National Bank, which became Bank of America. Citizens National Bank and Trust in Port Richey merged with Mercantile Bank. Gulfstream Community Bank in Port Richey merged with Republic Bank.

Now 64 years old, Chesnut retired this week as a managing director with Republic's Port Richey branch, 45 years after turning a summer job into a career.

"I think being able to help people, help their businesses grow," he said, describing the best part of his career. "The hardest thing is the competition. We've cut up the pie in a lot of pieces so it's harder and harder than it used to be."

The son of a car salesman who moved his family from Alabama to New Port Richey, Chesnut, a 1962 Gulf High School graduate, had wanted to become a lawyer. He had been on the high school debate team and played football, basketball and baseball. ("Sat on the bench for three sports," he deadpanned.)

But the summer after his first year at University of South Florida, Mr. Cooper — that's what he still calls Richard Cooper, then the president of the Ellis corporation's First National Bank of New Port Richey — offered him a cashier job at the bank.

At the end of the summer, Chesnut's family didn't have enough money to send him back to college. The bank made him another offer.

"They said if you want to make a career of this, there's an opportunity," Chesnut recalled. "Back then a degree wasn't a requisite."

And so he stayed with the company of banks founded by A. L. Ellis (husband of Helen Ellis, for whom the Tarpon Springs hospital is named), working his way up to loan officer, vice president and CEO of Ellis Bank of Northeast Florida in DeLand.

The company helped pay for classes he took along the way, and he eventually got his business management degree from Eckerd College in 1992.

"At the end of the day, it was the loyalty, the opportunities they gave me," he said. "You had to do your job, but it went both ways."

The transformation of the state's banking industry began in earnest in the 1990s as an influx of big, out-of-state bankers gobbled up dozens of Florida-based banks.

As experienced local bankers began losing their jobs, people like Chesnut saw opportunities. "There was this pool of people who wanted to go back to the local model," he said.

Chesnut worked with a number of community banks and in 2000, he and a group of other business leaders started Gulfstream Community Bank with $5-million. He said the bank was profitable within the first two years as employees built on their network of relationships established at other banks.

"We knew we had a following of good customers," he said.

When Kentucky-based Republic Bank came courting in 2006, looking for a Florida foothold, Gulfstream was still doing well on its own, said Chesnut. But the suitor was too good, and the price — $18.1-million — too right not to act.

"As a bank, you have a liability to your shareholders," he said.

He said he thinks there is plenty of room for community banks, pointing to Florida Traditions, Dade City's homegrown bank that opened in 2007, as an example.

But Chesnut, who called the current state of the economy "about as bad as I've seen it," said it's getting harder for smaller banks. With new federal regulations, he said, starting a bank these days would cost three times as much as it did when he started Gulfstream.

Plus, he said, the bigger banks have done a good job of building a network of online services that customers can use even if they move around a lot.

"Banks have done such a good job tying their customers to them," he said. "For years, a small community bank could sit at the feet of the giant and wait for the crumbs. Now there aren't any crumbs hitting the ground."

So does all that make it harder to know your local bank executive? Who is the Mr. Cooper these days?

Off-hand, Chesnut could name only three local executives: Lamar Roberts, president of First National Bank of Pasco in Dade City; Bud Stalnaker Jr. at Florida Traditions and Richard Adams of Heritage Bank of Florida.

But Chesnut added that he thinks everyone, from Bank of America to Synovus, has made an effort to play bigger roles in the community, such as sponsoring charity events.

"The larger banks in this area continue to be an extremely important part of the community," he said.

Despite the bank failures and mortgage mess of the last year, he said he expects the successful banks to keep operating on the same basic accounting principles.

"A lot of people lowered their standards. It worked well for some banks and for others, it did not," said Chesnut. "But I think fundamentally it hasn't changed a lot if you're doing it the right way."

Jodie Tillman can be reached at jtillman@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6247.

Longtime Pasco County banker Phil Chesnut retires 01/02/09 [Last modified: Monday, January 5, 2009 3:13pm]
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