Local bank thrives as newcomer

Atlantic Capital Bank was created just before the recession and credit crunch. It still only has one branch. And its leaders thought they would be financing many more corporate expansions than they have been.

That’s three strikes, according to my math.

But the 2-year-old, Buckhead-based bank has become one of the fastest-growing financial institutions in the state, at a time when Georgia has led the nation in bank failures.

How?

Credit an aggressive game plan that shunned residential real estate and relied heavily on hiring veteran bankers to steal business from competitors.

Of course, the bank also is bringing in new customers of its own, but Chairman Sonny Deriso and CEO Doug Williams make no apologies for poaching.

“Our bankers had a ready Rolodex,” Williams, 51, said. “We’re gaining new business by stealing market share.”

Atlantic Capital Bank opened in May 2007, after raising $125 million – the largest amount for a new, independent bank in the nation’s history.

Williams and Deriso originally thought they would be getting new customers by focusing on companies that needed funds for expansion. But the recession and financial crisis hit shortly after the bank opened its doors.

Goodbye, expansions. Hello, experienced loan officers with lots of customers from their former banks.

Execs at some of those banks were pre-occupied with the financial meltdown and problem real estate loans.

“We had a clean slate. We weren’t distracted,” Deriso, 63, said. “Other banks were.”

The mortgage crisis also solidified another part of the bank’s strategy – staying away from residential real estate. Instead, Deriso and Williams focused on catering to mid-sized companies with revenue between $5 million and $250 million – and their key executives.

Plenty of banks are going after the same customers, but Atlantic Capital said its edge comes from providing better customer service. That includes a “remote deposit capture” system, which allows companies to scan checks and send them electronically to the bank for deposit. With only one branch, electronic banking is key for Atlantic Capital.

The results have been impressive, so far. Atlantic Capital was the state’s second-fastest growing bank during the past two years among the 89 financial institutions formed since 2000, according to FIG Partners.

The fastest growing, Piedmont Bank of Lawrenceville, is much smaller – $185 million in assets in the second quarter, compared with $610 million for Atlantic Capital.

Growth has not been flawless. Atlantic Capital currently has problem loans amounting to $5 million. But with a huge capital cushion, it has the resources to weather such storms.

Like most new banks, Atlantic Capital lost money so far – $8 million last year. But it expects to be profitable next year.

Still, I’ve been a business reporter long enough to have covered many fast-growing companies, including banks, that have gotten into trouble. So Atlantic Capital will have to prove itself over time.

“The challenge for all banks is [gaining] deposits,” Deriso said. “It’s a business that’s developed face to face.”

So is good journalism. Think I’ll schedule another sit-down interview in due course.

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