Murky split for First National Bank of Pasco, president J. Lamar Roberts

DADE CITY — When J. Lamar Roberts took over as president and CEO of First National Bank of Pasco in 1992, he was known as a financial Mr. Fix It.

The bank's reputation was not so hot.

At the time, First National was losing money and had a growing pile of problem loans. Federal regulators had urged the board of directors to find new management and tighten up its lending habits.

Fast forward 17 years to a time when bank failures and bailouts are common fixtures in the news, and you'll find First National sitting pretty.

The bank is one of 22 among 310 state banks to recently receive five stars — the highest rating — from Bauer Financial, which rates banks on how well-capitalized they are in an era of higher loan losses, among other criteria.

First National is the only Pasco County bank to earn Bauer's "superior'' status. The second highest rated is Lutz's Heritage Bank of Florida which earned four stars and an excellent rating.

First National's rate of non-performing assets (technical speak for overdue loans) is a tenth of the average for the Tampa Bay area, according to the accounting firm Saltmarsh, Cleaveland and Gund.

"First National, they're a solid institution," said Bill Massey of the firm's financial institution advisory group.

From sinking to "solid," you would think the bank's board of directors would be quite happy with their presidential pick 17 years ago.

But Roberts, who had planned to stay at the bank until his retirement, is job hunting. His contract with First National expires April 20.

Robert Sumner, president of the bank's holding company and the only board member who could be reached by the Times, said the board and Roberts could not reach an agreement on his contract.

"The bank board, having a history of conservative posture, and in this type of economy, we just were not able to resolve the issues," he said.

He did not elaborate.

• • •

Roberts, 67, is quick to share the bank's success with its 41 employees, the community and customers.

Under his oversight, the bank developed its current lending strategy. First National gives loans mostly on commercial, owner occupied real estate, single-family dwellings and its "niche market," retirement homes in upscale senior mobile home parks.

The bank avoided subprime loans and lending to developers.

"That is, from my perspective, speculative lending," Roberts said.

"Lamar Roberts is one of the most meticulous people I've ever seen," said Nathan Botts, a shareholder at Saltmarsh, Cleaveland and Gund. "Many bankers call on him for advice when they get in trouble."

• • •

Roberts keeps a photo in his desk of his childhood home in Troup County, Ga., where five people shared three rooms. The outhouse was in the back yard, the hand crank well in the front.

The son of a minister, Roberts was drawn to banking because "they have air conditioning, and you get to wear a coat and a tie."

His resume has come a long way since his first $1 per hour teller gig.

At 29, he was president of a bank that became one of the best performing in Florida.

In 1988, Florida Banking magazine wrote a glowing article about Roberts called "Pride of the Panhandle," when a Fort Walton Beach bank's assets more than doubled after seven years under his watch.

Roberts was also president of the Florida Bankers Association between 2004 and 2005.

His record of recognition and success make the bank board's decision to let him go all the more baffling. But Roberts isn't giving any more details about the separation — and neither is Sumner, the holding company president.

The reason for the split is staying secret — at least for now.

First National's board has not yet found a replacement for Roberts, who, as expected, already has several job options lined up.

The financial fix it wizard said leaving the bank will be "one of the saddest days in my life," but adds he holds no grudges against the board.

"I don't understand what they're doing, but I accept it."

Helen Anne Travis can be reached at htravis@sptimes.com or (813) 435-7312.

Murky split for First National Bank of Pasco, president J. Lamar Roberts 04/11/09 [Last modified: Saturday, April 11, 2009 1:48pm]

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