Writer: Max Crampton-Thomas
2 min read March 2021 — The COVID-19 environment in Tampa Bay has opened a window of opportunity for financial firms to make their presence known. Bill Lutes, Market President at Ameris Bank, shares his expertise and insights into what the region offers for those seeking a market foothold.
How is Ameris Bank maintaining a community bank feel while growing your footprint?
Ameris Bank primarily operates in six states in the Southeast and recently announced earnings. At fiscal year-end 2020 we reported assets in excess of $20 billion and adjusted net income of just over $300 million. We also surpassed a milestone of $1 billion in revenue. I have peers scattered around our footprint; we are a geographically committed organization providing significant autonomy at the local level for decision-making. We are proud of our culture and make sure that The Ameris Approach is maintained across all markets. Every new employee gets a booklet detailing The Ameris Approach, our mission and our vision. Our commitment to that culture is a big part of what has allowed us to make our markets culturally look the same. As it relates to Tampa, we are slowly but surely building our brand and our reputation through various strategic initiatives.
How are you advising clients in Tampa during the transition to a post-COVID landscape?
The pandemic really unveiled leadership or lack thereof. It is a black swan the likes of which we have not seen in recent history. There were a lot of people feeling very uneasy about it. Our Bank has benefited from the pandemic in terms of adding a lot of talent, not only in Tampa, but across our footprint. We opened up North Carolina, we added teams in Augusta and Savannah. For every one of us in the enviable position of growing during this turbulent time, there are five others that have had to make some tough decisions. Our recommendations are to look in the mirror, be honest, soul search, be candid and try to think outside the box. We have an opportunity to get rid of old paradigms, try out and adopt new ones. That is the overlying theme that many of my conversations with clients seem to center around.
What role will regional banks play in Tampa’s recovery?
Banks our size, with a regional capacity, are called upon to play a significant role in recovery efforts, perhaps even more so than small community banks or larger national banks. On the one hand, banks our size, those that do it right, can act much like the small community bank – having the personal interactions and providing our clients direct access to leadership. On the other hand, we have products, resources, capabilities that smaller community banks generally lack. That is the sweet spot that Tampa’s pandemic recovery requires. As we get bigger, we have to be — as a leadership team — committed to ensuring that whether we become a $30 billion or $50 billion bank, we behave at the market level as we did when we were a $3 billion bank.
What opportunities has the pandemic environment unlocked for your business?
During this atypical period, in Tampa Bay & Southwest Florida we were able to grow loans, net of PPP, by 11%, demand deposits by 38%, and interest-bearing deposits by 78%, with virtually all of the commercial staff in Tampa joining in the second half of 2020. A lot of that was a result of rolling up our sleeves, doing everything in our capacity relative to PPP loans, while at the same time working feverishly to build the Ameris brand in Tampa Bay. There has been a lot of disruption in the Tampa Bay market between mergers and reorganizations. The banking industry is predicated on relationships, so when people are no longer there, it leaves the door open for opportunity. It is a small window that we need to capitalize on because it will shut quickly. We are laser-focused on running as hard as we can to gather as much market share as we can. Our credit quality is fantastic and the bank historically has always viewed down markets like this as the most opportunistic because many banks are pulling back and reorganizing, meaning their clients are more vulnerable to changing banks.
What is your outlook for Ameris in the next year?
Big picture, we feel good about the future. We added to reserves like many did but our loan portfolio is as healthy as it ever has been. We have a rather assertive sense for what we think the outcome is going to be for most industries. That sense has been predicated on what we’ve seen during the pandemic. Some of our clients are having record years. We are excited about the Tampa Bay & Southwest Florida market, and the bank has made it a priority. We added a significant number of talented teammates to our ranks throughout 2020. When I joined the bank in June of 2020 the headcount was 28, including me, and now we have 37. All of these additions were in Tampa at our commercial office and included commercial bankers, commercial banking assistants, treasury management sales and credit resources, including a Regional Credit Officer. Tampa Bay may be the greatest opportunity for organic growth across our entire footprint, which is why we’ve made it a priority. We’ve signed a lease to nearly triple our commercial office space in Tampa in the middle of a pandemic. It will also include signage on top of a 200,000-square-foot building.
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