2 min read December 2021 — Ameris Bank is a financial institution serving customers across the Southeast and mid-Atlantic. In an interview with Invest:, Tampa Bay Market President Bill Lutes discussed where the region’s banking industry stands today. He commented on how the industry is evolving rapidly, the hot M&A market and how banks are struggling to deploy the tremendous amount of liquidity on their books.
What differentiates Ameris Bank from some of the other players in this region?
It’s our delivery model. We’re now a $23 billion bank covering six states in the Southeast and are very well capitalized. Yet, we operate under a geographic-centric model. As the market president, I have a lot of autonomy. Decisions are made locally. We’re big enough that we can handle virtually any need of almost any company here in the Tampa Bay region, and yet we’re small and nimble enough to service them more quickly and efficiently than virtually all of our competitors.
How does activity at the bank today compare to 2019 levels?
Demand is high. There is a lot of liquidity in the marketplace looking to be deployed. We, like many banks, are flush with liquidity as well, and there is the challenge of finding good assets to deploy that liquidity. Since the end of 2019, we’ve grown our loan book 84%, our deposit book 90% and low-cost deposits have grown 115%. There are few banks in this market, if any, that have achieved similar growth rates over this period. This has been a good ride despite the bumpiness of the pandemic.
What will be the balance of technology and human interaction in the banking industry?
The industry continues to evolve. That being said, technology is always going to play a big role, but at the end of the day we’re a people business. We are investing a lot of dollars both on the back end and front end to ensure that the client experience is as smooth and efficient as possible.
I started in the banking industry in 1986, and we were told as young bankers that by the year 2000 checks were going to go away. However, check volume continues to stay flat or increase. I don’t want to diminish the role technology will play in our business and we certainly have to keep up with it, but we also understand that there are things that are resolved through human interaction.
What positions are you looking to hire the most for in 2022?
In the back half of 2019 and in 2020, we made a lot of talent additions. Excluding our retail platform, when I joined the bank in June 2020, there were three people including myself in our Tampa headquarters. Today, there are 13. We are where we want to be from a headcount perspective, but we are opportunistic and if the right banker became available we would proceed with hiring that person. However, especially on our retail platform, it is very challenging to find people. We are most in need of part-time tellers, full-time tellers and universal bankers at this time. We’re 10 to 15% short of where we want to be.
What is the current landscape of M&A in Tampa Bay’s banking industry?
We are opportunistic, and I believe we have a good culture, plan and path in place to stay independent. We have a flush liquidity position, our credit portfolio is pristine and we trade publicly at approximately two times our tangible book. We continue to demonstrate that we can grow the bank organically at a high single-digit rate, unlike many of our peers. We don’t need a deal to succeed, but it’d be nice to secure a deal to fill in a geographic region or secure a speciality line of business that another bank has to offer.
The disruption in the marketplace by M&A activity is huge, and it’s definitely picked up. With that comes opportunity. Clients become unsettled when mergers happen, and in many cases may not know who their banker will be coming out the other end. Some portion of our success has been a direct result of this activity.
What is your outlook for Ameris Bank and the broader banking sector in Tampa Bay for the coming three years?
We are very well positioned, having grown a very nice book of business and an absolute dream team. We’re running at 200%-plus of our net revenue budget, which is pretty amazing, and 400%-plus year-over-year.
Competition is heating up. The liquidity that has built up has caused, we believe, some of our competition to act irrationally, both in terms of price and structure to deploy liquidity, and only time will tell if they were right. We will remain very disciplined as we deploy capital. One of the headwinds we’ll face is continual supply chain issues that impact our clients, and inflation remains a concern. I hope the inflation we’re experiencing is indeed transitory, and I’m glad Jerome Powell will remain as the Fed chair.
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