Aaron Dorn spent two years putting together a checklist of things that needed to be in place and questions that needed to be answered before starting a new bank.
He considered buying an existing bank, but acquiring a company built on legacy core technology was a big inhibitor to building a digital-only bank, which was Dorn’s business plan. However, the idea of going de novo became too costly and intensive to justify the effort after the FDIC increased its capitalization requirements for startups following the financial crisis. Now, there are signs that the environment for de novos is improving. Economic conditions around the country are better and bank stock values are higher, but there are other factors that could also be significant drivers behind a recent uptick in de novo activity, all of which Dorn discovered in Nashville as he considered the de novo route.
Dorn, 37, formally began the process of raising capital in the fall of 2017 to form Studio Bank, which will officially open in a few weeks. He will serve as the CEO and also brought along a few former colleagues from Avenue Bank, where Dorn was the chief strategy and marketing officer. Avenue Bank was a 10-year-old “de facto de novo” (a recapitalized and rebranded Planters Bank of Tennessee) that sold in 2016 to Pinnacle Financial Partners, another Nashville-based bank. In fact, Studio’s music company-turned bank home sits in the shadow of Pinnacle’s headquarters building.
Just two banks have earned FDIC approval this year, but nearly more than a dozen de novo applications were awaiting approval in mid-June. That comes after just 13 banks opened in the seven preceding years, according to the agency. Capital raises for the new banks have been anywhere from a fairly standard $20 million to $100 million by Grasshopper Bank, based in New York.
This flurry of activity has naturally drawn attention and speculation about whether there will be a return to the level of new charter activity we saw previous to the financial crisis when in any given year there could be between 100 to 200 new bank formations. What exactly has inspired this growth in applications? Along with a stronger economy and higher valuations, the industry’s ongoing consolidation has created opportunities for former bankers like Dorn who are itching to get back into a business currently ripe with promise.
“These mergers are producing opportunities for groups to put together locally owned, more community focused financial institutions to service their market and also play an important role as community leaders,” said Phil Moore, managing partner at Porter Keadle Moore, an advisory and accounting firm.
But the question circulating among bankers and insiders is what has inspired the sharp increase in de novo activity. Or perhaps more importantly, what’s the recipe for starting a new bank today?
There’s a few things some agree need to be in place to get a new bank off the ground.
“The first is that these de novos are organizing in what could be considered underserved markets, secondly they are focusing on vibrant growth areas and third, they are generally organizing to serve an affinity group,” says Moore.
This is Dorn’s perspective also, who says he created Studio in part because the booming Nashville market has few local banks. Studio will focus on “creators,” as Dorn calls them, including musicians, nonprofits and startups, a very similar model to Avenue, except that Studio will operate from a digital platform.
The Nashville deposit market has doubled since the last de novo opened there in 2008, Dorn says. There is also a preference for local ownership. “Empirically, (Nashville is) a market that strongly prefers locally headquartered banks,” he says.
Studio is one of just two de novos that have been approved this year. The other, CommerceOne Bank, is in Birmingham, Alabama, another blossoming metro area that also has very few locally owned banks. Birmingham rates in the top 160 metro areas in the country, according to the Milken Institute’s 2017 Best-Performing Cities report.
Other pending applications that are also in high-performing areas like Oklahoma City, ranked 131, and Sarasota, Florida, ranked No. 6.
That’s still a far cry from the de novo activity seen in the decades prior to the financial crisis, but the interest in starting new companies can certainly be seen as encouraging.