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Why are banks expanding in Tampa Bay? First Citrus Bank’s CEO explains

The company’s St. Petersburg expansion shows the market’s growth potential, says CEO Jack Barrett.
This rendering shows First Citrus Bank's planned St. Petersburg branch, its first in Pinellas County, which will open in June.
This rendering shows First Citrus Bank's planned St. Petersburg branch, its first in Pinellas County, which will open in June. [ First Citrus Bank ]
Published Apr. 30

Anytime Tampa can be mentioned in a positive economic light alongside Austin, Nashville and Charlotte, it’s cause for local business leaders to celebrate.

So the news that Tampa Bay, like those other booming cities, was among the U.S. markets that saw the most bank branch growth last year makes CEOs like Jack Barrett happy.

“I think the economy for Tampa Bay is going to be very stable and continue to grow, just because there are too many tailwinds supporting that,” said Barrett, the CEO and president of Carrollwood-based First Citrus Bank.

During 2020, the number of bank branches across the United States fell by 1.5 percent, according to a new study by commercial real estate services firm JLL, while mobile banking increased by 65 percent. Out of 42 markets surveyed, Tampa Bay was one of 10 to report a net gain of new branches.

Across the market, more new banks are coming. Clearwater’s Flagship Bank just opened a new downtown St. Petersburg branch. Climate First Bank will open its new St. Petersburg headquarters in June.

And First Citrus Bank will open its first full-service bank in Pinellas County when it moves into a new downtown St. Petersburg office at 300 First Ave. S in June. It’s the bank’s sixth branch, and it might not be the last. During the first quarter of 2021, First Citrus reported record amounts of net income, deposits, loans and assets, with net earnings up 104 percent year over year.

Jack Barrett is the CEO and president of First Citrus Bank in Carrollwood.
Jack Barrett is the CEO and president of First Citrus Bank in Carrollwood. [ First Citrus Bank ]

“We’ve never been more fired up to do what we do,” Barrett said. “We’ve never been more inspired to build on our footprint and grow our footprint. We’re going to do it initially by going deeper in our existing market, in addition to expanding with bricks and mortar in Pinellas County.”

In a recent phone interview, Barrett shared his insights on Tampa Bay as a growing banking market. (This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.)

Does it surprise you that Tampa saw growth last year in the number of bank branches in the area?

Not at all. The overall state itself has lost 41 bank offices year-over-year, from just over 4,800 in 2019 to 4,775 last year. But certain markets, particularly West Central Florida, metro Tampa Bay, it’s been a different story. Pinellas County has long held more deposits than Hillsborough County, to the tune of $15 billion more. More deposits and fewer bank locations — that’s our inventory. And that’s where we can do the most good.

At a time when more people are shifting their financial services online, why is now the right time to open a physical bank branch?

With a large bank, they are heavily focused on redirecting transaction activity online, because it’s so much less expensive for them. With our company, it’s not an either-or. We’re going to give you the same bells and whistles. If you want to deposit online from the comfort of your own home or office without ever having to step foot in a bank, you can do that. We also have a courier, sort of a bank on wheels, that can go around to various companies. The name of our game is visibility and expansion, because that’s one of the ways people make those decisions. They have to see your bank branch out there. Our goal is to grow our footprint, grow market share, and those branches help facilitate our deposit growth.

How do you calculate the value of having a sign and a branch in a highly trafficked area such as downtown St. Pete?

We expect to have a few hundred million in deposits there. That’s just a function of what that market looks like. We’re going to have a lot of boots on the ground. Banking, at the end of the day, is still a face-to-face business, especially at the small business level. The only constant in business today is everyone’s need and desire to be treated with respect and dignity. And you’re going to get that.

The Paycheck Protection Program was a billion-dollar industry for banks in Florida, just through processing fees. Did that business mean more to smaller lenders than larger banks?

It really did. Our company is so nimble, we can pivot on a dime. If you’re running a company with a trillion-dollar balance sheet, it’s like turning around an aircraft carrier. It’s our job to meet their need, not try and shoehorn them into whatever product we have. For everyone in the company last year, it was: “Guess what? You are no longer an accounts rep. You are a PPP file triage clerk.” That would be very difficult to do in a trillion-dollar organization.

We’re not the seventh-largest bank in the state of Florida; we’re the 45th largest bank. But we ranked seventh in PPP lending. How does the 45th largest bank rank seventh in PPP lending? Speed to market and operational flexibility. That’s how.

Is it fair to say PPP lending contributed significantly to the record quarter you just had?

My goodness, yes. Not just fiscally, it contributed emotionally. When anyone goes through a lot of abrupt demand and adversity together ... we were pretty close before, but we’re closer today, because we all hung in there together. We all showed up unshaven, working a ton of hours, seven days a week. The outpouring of appreciation by our clients, the tears, the emotional emails — oh my gosh. There’s just a lot of heart here.

If PPP helped fuel banks’ financial performance last year, how do you translate that into longer-term growth once all the pandemic aid goes away?

This past quarter, we had over $40 million in new loan closings. That was a record. And that’s all organic, in addition to the PPP. That is just with our existing customers and new customers we’re steadily adding. Our profile is rising, and we’re getting out there. I’m out there with our branch managers. We’re out touching customers, touching small businesses, and we’re delivering.