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Bankers' Views Mixed on Importance of M&A in Southeast

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Leaders of large community banks are keen on acquisitions, although their level of interest varies widely.

Home BancShares in Conway, Ark., is aggressively prowling for deals with an eye on a major transaction in eastern Florida. Bank of the Ozarks, also in Arkansas, seems more intent on organic growth, while Renasant in Tupelo, Miss., falls somewhere in between.

Leaders at those banks made it clear during a conference in Chicago hosted by Raymond James that overall consolidation will accelerate across the region as smaller banks become more comfortable selling and as buyers look to spread out escalating regulatory costs. At the same time, bankers remain open to pinching lenders and opening branches in new markets to boost the bottom line.

The $6.7 billion-asset Home teased out the possibility of a game-changing acquisition to rival its recent purchase of Liberty Bancshares. Johnny Allison, Home's chairman, told attendees that he is evaluating several targets, with a focus on eastern Florida.

One unnamed target is giving Allison "cold chills" because it is a third of Home's size and has the potential for significant cost cutting. He noted that the target's efficiency ratio is close to 80%, adding that earnings could be unlocked by cutting costs closer to Home's 45% ratio.

Pricing is no longer the hardest sell for targets, Allison said. Rather, Home is now focused on the consideration it pays. "The next time I want to use as much cash as I can to protect my stock," he said.

Home could also entertain a merger with a similar sized institution as it approaches $10 billion in assets, a size that lands banks more regulatory scrutiny and caps on interchange fees. Allison mentioned Renasant and South State in Columbia, S.C., adding that those institutions are "good banks with good currencies that know what they're doing."

The idea would be to create a bank with $13 billion to $15 billion in assets to address the $10 million in added costs Home would incur if it tiptoed over the key regulatory threshold. "I don't know if I'd do it or not," Allison said of a major merger. "We'd want to hook up with the right partner if it makes sense long term."

Renasant, which also presented at the Raymond James conference, may be more reluctant to pursue such a large merger. Kevin Chapman, the $5.8 billion-asset company's chief financial officer, said his company would be open to buying banks with up to $2 billion in assets.

"We don't feel like we have to" do a deal, Chapman told attendees. Renasant is focused on profitability and increasing its return on assets. The company is aggressively hiring lenders in markets such as eastern Tennessee and Alabama, while also looking at ways to increase mortgage originations.

Still, Chapman said Renasant would be willing to buy smaller banks to compliment markets where it has hired lenders. "We're focused on being opportunistic," he said. "It may mean an open bank acquisition or lifting team members."

Bank of the Ozarks came across as the least eager of the three banks for acquisitions, which is surprising given its recent string of acquisitions. In 2010 and 2011, the $5.7 billion-asset company bid on more than four dozen failed banks, buying seven of them.

The company is optimistic about offices it recently opened in New York and Los Angeles. George Gleason, Bank of the Ozarks' chairman and chief executive, said those offices have generated roughly $218 million in loans.

Bank of the Ozarks is also preparing to close its purchase of Intervest Bankshares, which would boost its presence in New York. Gleason said some post-closing "tweaks and enhancements" to underwriting standards might curb Intervest's short-term loan growth, though the bank should be able to double its $1 billion loan portfolio in the next five years.

The company has been so aggressive opening offices that, sometimes, "I lose track of it myself," Gleason said during his time at the podium. Bank of the Ozarks just opened a loan office in Asheville, N.C., and is set to open an office in Hilton Head, S.C., in a few weeks.

Bank of the Ozarks, which also bought Omnibank in Houston in March, remains open to more acquisitions, Gleason said, though he repeatedly reminded attendees that his company had been dedicated to organic growth before its wave of failed-bank deals began.

Loan growth remains strong at Bank of the Ozarks, even if its pace of deals has slowed down. The company added about $540 million in loans during the first half of this year. The company also formed a corporate lending group that should be a strong contributor, even though it "may take a decade to build" the business, Gleason said.

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