How Credit Unions Pursue Growth

The nationwide pandemic and persistent economic uncertainty hasn’t slowed the growth of Idaho Central Credit Union.

The credit union is located in Chubbuck, Idaho, a town of 15,600 near the southeast corner, and is one of the fastest growing in the nation. It has nearly tripled in size over the last five years, mostly from organic growth, according to an analysis by CEO Advisory Group of the 50 fastest growing credit unions. It also has some of the highest earnings among credit unions — with a return on average assets of 1.6% last year — an enviable figure, even among banks.

“This is an example of a credit union that is large enough, [say] $6 billion in assets, that they can be dominant in their state and in a lot of small- and medium-sized markets,” says Glenn Christensen, president of CEO Advisory Group, which advises credit unions.

Unsurprisingly, growth and earnings often go hand in hand. Many of the nation’s fastest growing credit unions are also high earners. Size and strength matter in the world of credit unions, as larger credit unions are able to afford the technology that attract and keep members, just like banks need technology to keep customers. These institutions also are able to offer competitive rates and convenience over smaller or less-efficient institutions.

“Economies of scale are real in our industry, and required for credit unions to continue to compete,” says Christensen.

The largest credit unions, indeed, have been taking an ever-larger share of the industry. Deposits at the top 20 credit unions increased 9.5% over the last five years; institutions with below $1 billion in assets grew deposits at 2.4% on average,” says Peter Duffy, managing director at Piper Sandler & Co. who focuses on credit unions.

As of the end of 2019, only 6% of credit unions had more than $1 billion in assets, or 332 out of about 5,200. That 6% represented 70% of the industry’s total deposit shares, Duffy says. Members gravitate to these institutions because they offer what members want: digital banking, convenience and better rates on deposits and loans.

The only ones that can consistently deliver the best rates, as well as the best technology suites, are the ones with scale,” Duffy says.

Duffy doesn’t think there’s a fixed optimal size for all credit unions. It depends on the market: A credit union in Los Angeles might need $5 billion in assets to compete effectively, while one in Nashville, Tennessee, might need $2 billion.

There are a lot of obstacles to building size and scale in the credit union industry, however. Large mergers in the space are relatively rare compared to banks — and they became even rarer during the coronavirus pandemic. Part of it is a lack of urgency around growth.

“For credit unions, since they don’t have shareholders, they aren’t looking to provide liquidity for shareholders or to get a good price,” says Christensen.

Prospective merger partners face a host of sensitive, difficult questions: Who will be in charge? Which board members will remain? What happens to the staff? What are the goals of the combined organization? What kind of change-in-control agreements are there for executives who lose their jobs?

These social issues can make deals fall apart. Perhaps the sheer difficulty of navigating credit union mergers is one contributor to the nascent trend of credit unions buying banks. A full $6.2 billion of the $27.7 billion in merged credit union assets in the last five years came from banks, Christensen says.

Institutions such as Lakeland, Florida-based MIDFLORIDA Credit Union are buying banks. In 2019, MIDFLORIDA purchased Ocala, Florida-based Community Bank & Trust of Florida, with $743 million in assets, and the Florida assets of $675 million First American Bank. The Fort Dodge, Iowa-based bank was later acquired by GreenState Credit Union in early 2020.

The $5 billion asset MIDFLORIDA was interested in an acquisition to gain more branches, as well as Community Bank & Trust’s treasury management department, which provides financial services to commercial customers.

MIDFLORIDA President Steve Moseley says it’s probably easier to buy a healthy bank than a healthy credit union. “The old saying is, ‘Everything is for sale [for the right price],’” he says. “Credit unions are not for sale.”

Still, despite the difficulties of completing mergers, the most-significant trend shaping the credit union landscape is that the nation’s numerous small institutions are going away. About 3% of credit unions disappear every year, mostly as a result of a merger, says Christensen. He projects that the current level of 5,271 credit unions with an average asset size of $335.6 million will drop to 3,903 credit unions by 2030 — with an average asset size of $1.1 billion.

CEO Advisory Credit Union Industry Consolidation Forecast

The pandemic’s economic uncertainty dropped deal-making activity down to 65 in the first half of 2020, compared to 72 during the same period in 2019 and 90 in the first half of 2018, according to S&P Global Market Intelligence. Still, Christensen and Duffy expect that figure to pick up as credit unions become more comfortable figuring out potential partners’ credit risks.

In the last five years, the fastest growing credit unions that have more than $500 million in assets have been acquirers. Based on deposits, Vibe Credit Union in Novi, Michigan, ranked the fastest growing acquirer above $500 million in assets between 2015 and 2020, according to the analysis by CEO Advisory Group. The $1 billion institution merged with Oakland County Credit Union in 2019.

Gurnee, Illinois-based Consumers Cooperative Credit Union ranked second. The $2.6 billion Consumers has done four mergers in that time, including the 2019 marriage to Andigo Credit Union in Schaumberg, Illinois. Still, much of its growth has been organic.

Canyon State Credit Union in Phoenix, which subsequently changed its name to Copper State Credit Union, and Community First Credit Union in Santa Rosa, California, were the third and fourth fastest growing acquirers in the last five years. Copper State, which has $520 million in assets, recorded a deposit growth rate of 225%. Community First , with $622 million in assets, notched 206%. The average deposit growth rate for all credit unions above $500 million in assets was 57.9%.

CEO Advisory Group Top 50 Fastest Growing Credit Unions

“A number of organizations look to build membership to build scale, so they can continue to invest,” says Rick Childs, a partner in the public accounting and consulting firm Crowe LLP.

Idaho Central is trying to do that mostly organically, becoming the sixth-fastest growing credit union above $500 million in assets. Instead of losing business during a pandemic, loans are growing — particularly mortgages and refinances — as well as auto loans.

“It’s almost counterintuitive,” says Mark Willden, the chief information officer. “Are we apprehensive? Of course we are.”

He points out that unemployment remained relatively low in Idaho, at 6.1% in September, compared to 7.9% nationally. The credit union also participated in the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program, lending out about $200 million, which helped grow loans.

Idaho Central is also investing in technology to improve customer service. It launched a new digital account opening platform in January 2020, which allows for automated approvals and offers a way for new members to fund their accounts right away. The credit union also purchased the platform from Temenos and customized the software using an in-house team of developers, software architects and user experience designers. It purchased Salesforce.com customer relationship management software, which gives employees a full view of each member they are serving, reducing wait times and providing better service.

But like Idaho Central, many of the fastest growing institutions aren’t growing through mergers, but organically. And boy, are they growing.

Latino Community Credit Union in Durham, North Carolina, grew assets 178% over the last five years by catering to Spanish-language and immigrant communities. It funds much of that growth with grants and subordinated debt, says Christensen.

Currently, only designated low-income credit unions such as the $536.5 million asset Latino Community can raise secondary capital, such as subordinated debt. But the National Credit Union Administration finalized a rule that goes into effect January 1, 2022, permiting non-low income credit unions to issue subordinated debt to comply with another set of rules. NCUA’s impending risk-based capital requirement would require credit unions to hold total capital equal to 10% of their risk-weighted assets, according to Richard Garabedian, an attorney at Hunton Andrews Kurth. He expects that the proposed rule likely will go into effect in 2021.

Unlike banks, credit unions can’t issue stock to investors. Many institutions use earnings to fuel their growth, and the two measures are closely linked. Easing the restrictions will give them a way to raise secondary capital.

A separate analysis by Piper Sandler’s Duffy of the top 263 credit unions based on share growth, membership growth and return on average assets found that the average top performer grew members by 54% in the last six years, while all other credit unions had an average growth rate of less than 1%.

Many of the fastest growing credit unions also happen to be among the top 25 highest earners, according to a list compiled by Piper Sandler. Among them: Burton, Michigan-based ELGA Credit Union, MIDFLORIDA Credit Union, Vibe and Idaho Central. All of them had a return on average assets of more than 1.5%. That’s no accident.

Top 25 High Performing Credit Unions

Credit unions above $1 billion in assets have a median return on average assets of 0.94%, compared to 0.49% for those below $1 billion in assets. Of the top 25 credit unions with the highest return on average assets in 2019, only a handful were below $1 billion in assets, according to Duffy.

Duffy frequently talks about the divide between credit unions that have forward momentum on growth and earnings and those who do not. Those who do not are “not going to be able, and have not been able, to keep up.”

How Digital Transformation is Driving Bank M&A

Three large bank acquisitions announced in the closing quarter of 2020 may signal a fundamental shift in how a growing number of regional banks envision the future.

While each deal is its own distinct story, there is a common thread that ties them together: the growing demand for scale in an industry undergoing a technological transformation that accelerated during the pandemic. Even large regional banks are hard pressed to afford the kind of technology investments that will help them keep pace with mega-banks like JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Bank of America Corp., which spend billions of dollars a year between them on their own digital transformation.

In October, First Citizens BancShares acquired New York-based CIT Group. Valued at $2.2 billion, the deal will create a top 20 U.S. bank with over $100 billion in assets, and combines the Raleigh, North Carolina-based bank’s low-cost retail funding base with CIT’s national commercial lending platform.

The two companies are a good strategic fit, according to H. Rodgin Cohen, the senior chair at Sullivan & Cromwell, who represented CIT. “If you look at it from CIT’s perspective, you can finance your loans at a much-cheaper cost,” says Cohen in an interview. “From a First Citizen perspective, you have the ability to use that incredible funding base for new categories of relatively higher-yielding loans.”

But digital transformation of banking was an underlying factor in this deal, as increasing numbers of customers shift their transactions to online and mobile channels. The fact that the pandemic forced most banks to close their branches for significant periods of 2020 only accelerated that trend.

“There is enormous pressure to migrate to a more digital technology-driven approach — in society as a whole — but particularly in banking,” Cohen says. “The key is to be able to spread that technology cost, that transformational cost, across the broadest possible customer base.  It doesn’t take a lot of direct savings on technology, simply by leveraging a broader customer base, to make a transaction of size really meaningful.”

A second scale-driven deal is PNC Financial Services Group’s $11.6 billion acquisition of BBVA USA, the U.S. arm of the Spanish bank Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria. Announced in mid-November, the deal will extend Pittsburgh-based PNC’s retail and middle-market commercial franchise — now based in the Mid-Atlantic, South and Midwest — to Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and California, with overlapping locations in Texas, Alabama and Florida. In a statement, PNC Chairman and CEO William Demchak said the acquisition provided the bank with the opportunity to “bring our industry-leading technology and innovative products and services to new markets and clients.”

The deal will create the fifth-largest U.S. bank, with assets of approximately $566 billion. But Demchak has made it clear in past statements that PNC needs to grow larger to compete in a consolidating industry dominated by the likes of JPMorgan and Bank of America.

Lastly, in a $6 billion deal announced in mid-December, Columbus, Ohio-based Huntington Bancshares is acquiring Detroit-based TCF Financial Corp. to form the tenth largest U.S. bank, with assets of approximately $170 billion. Chairman and CEO Stephen Steinour says the two companies are an excellent fit with similar cultures and strategies.

“It’s a terrific bank,” Steinour says in an interview. “I’ve known their chairman for a couple of decades. Many of our colleagues have friends there, or family members. We compete against them. We see how they operate. There’s a lot to like about what they’ve built.”

The acquisition will extend Huntington’s retail footprint to Minnesota, Colorado, Wisconsin and South Dakota, while deepening its presence in the large Chicago market. And with extensive overlapping operations in Michigan, Huntington expects the deal to yield approximately $490 million in cost saves, which is equivalent to 37% of TCF’s noninterest expense.

But this deal is predicated on much more than just anticipated cost saves, according to Steinour.

What Apple and Google and Amazon are doing is teaching people how to become digitally literate and creating expectations,” he says. “And our industry is going to have to follow that in terms of matching those capabilities. This combination is an opportunity to accelerate and substantially increase our digital investment. We have to do more, and we have to go faster, because our customers are going to expect it.”

Steinour hedges on if these recent deals also signal that banking is entering a new phase of consolidation, in which regionals pair off to get bigger in a new environment where scale matters. But last year’s $66 billion merger of BB&T Corp. and SunTrust Banks Inc. to form Truist Financial Corp. — currently the fifth-largest U.S. bank, although the post-merger PNC will drop it down a peg — was also driven by a perceived need for more scale. Senior executives at both companies said the primary impetus behind the deal was the ability to spread technology costs over a wider base.

But clearly, the need for scale was a factor for Huntington as well. “We’re investing heavily in this opportunity to combine two good companies, get a lot stronger, accelerate our investments and spread that over a much bigger customer base,” he says. “That makes eminent sense to us.”

As Steinour comments later, “We’ll be stronger together.”

2021 Bank M&A Survey Results: Uncertainty Stalls Growth Plans

Will bank M&A activity thaw out in 2021?

Bank deals have been in deep freeze due to Covid-19 and the related economic downturn, but most of the executives and directors responding to Bank Director’s 2021 Bank M&A Survey, sponsored by Crowe LLP, say their bank remains open to doing deals.

More than one-third say their institution is likely to purchase a bank by the end of 2021; this represents a significant decline compared to last year’s survey, when 44% believed an acquisition likely in 2020. Branch and loan portfolio acquisitions also look slightly less attractive compared to a year ago.

The barriers to dealmaking may prove difficult to surmount in today’s uncertain economic and political environment.

With pressures on small businesses and the commercial real estate market exacerbated by remote work and social distancing measures, the recovery of the U.S. economy — and bank M&A — may hinge on conquering the coronavirus. In response, bank leaders are focused on credit quality: 63% point to concerns about the quality of a potential target’s loan book as a top barrier to making an acquisition, up significantly from last year’s survey (36%).

Despite concerns about credit quality and profitability, 85% say their bank is no more likely to sell due to Covid-19, and just 7% regret that they didn’t sell before the current downturn, when target banks could expect to command a higher price.

This willingness to carry on and weather these challenges may find its foundation in respondents’ long-term expectations. More than half anticipate a slow rebound for the U.S. economy. Twenty-eight percent don’t expect to return to pre-crisis levels in 2021, and 7% believe the recession will deepen.

Still, half believe that when the crisis abates, their bank will be just as strong as it was earlier this year. Forty-four percent express even greater optimism, believing they’ll emerge even stronger.

Key Findings

Loan Losses
More than half (57%) believe their bank’s loan loss allowance will be sufficient to cover expected losses over the next 12 months. Two-thirds say that less than 5% of residential mortgages will default and 64% that less than 5% of commercial loans will default.

Willing to Pay for Quality
When describing their bank’s acquisition strategy, 44% indicate that they seek strategic acquisitions, regardless of price. One-quarter look for low-priced acquisitions of historically well-run banks; 27% are comfortable paying a premium for well-managed banks.

Tech Acquisitions Rare
Just 11% believe they’ll purchase a technology company. Of these, 63% express interest in buying a business or commercial lending platform; 63% are open to acquiring a consumer deposit-gathering platform. Almost half seek data analytics capabilities.

Price Remains a Barrier
Potential acquirers’ concerns about pricing as a barrier to dealmaking have dropped significantly — from 72% last year to 60% in this year’s survey. However, more respondents express concern about their ability to use stock as currency in a deal, as well as demands on their capital should they acquire.

Effects on Capital
Most believe their bank’s capital levels are sufficient to weather the economic downturn, assuming a rapid (98%) or slow (98%) recovery in 2021, or mild recession (97%). Eighty-one percent believe they can weather a deeper recession. Just one-quarter plan to raise capital over the next six months.

High Marks for Trump
An overwhelming majority award President Trump’s administration positive marks for the rollout of Paycheck Protection Program loans (90%) and stimulus payments (91%), and its support of the U.S. economy (88%). Two-thirds believe the administration has effectively responded to the pandemic.

To view the full results of the survey, click here.

The Widening M&A Gap

The number of bank M&A transactions completed in 2020 represent a stark decline compared to those that have closed in recent years. Dory Wiley of Commerce Street Capital believes that deal activity will rebound in 2021 — but notes that buyers and sellers may find it even more difficult to come to terms on price. In this video, he provides guidance on how banks can meet their goals.

  • Predictions for 2021
  • Considerations for Acquirers
  • Advice for Prospective Sellers

Pandemic Offers Strong Banks a Shot at Transformative Deals

It’s a rule of banking that an economic crisis always creates winners and losers. The losers are the banks that run out of capital or liquidity (or both), and either fail or are forced to sell at fire-sale prices. The winners are the strong banks that scoop them up at a discount.

And in the recent history of such deals, many of them have been transformative.

The bank M&A market through the first six months of 2020 has been moribund – just 50 deals compared to 259 last year and 254 in 2018, according to S&P Global Market Intelligence. But some banks inevitably get into trouble during a recession, and you had better believe that well-capitalized banks will be waiting to pounce when they do.

One of them could be PNC Financial Services Group. In an interview for my story in the third quarter issue of Bank Director magazine – “Surviving the Pandemic” – Chairman and CEO William Demchak said the $459 billion bank would be on the lookout for opportunistic deals during the downturn. In May, PNC sold its 22% stake in the investment management firm BlackRock for $14.4 billion. Some of that money will be used to armor the bank’s balance sheet against possible losses in the event of a deep recession, but could also fund an acquisition.

PNC has done this before. In 2008, the bank acquired National City Corp., which had suffered big losses on subprime mortgages. And three years later, PNC acquired the U.S. retail business of Royal Bank of Canada, which was slow to recover from the collapse of the subprime mortgage market.

Together, these deals were transformational: National City gave PNC more scale, while Royal Bank’s U.S. operation extended the Pittsburgh-based bank’s franchise into the southeast.

“We’re more than prepared to do it,” Demchak told me in an interview in late May. “And when you have a safety buffer of capital in your pocket, you can do so with a little more resolve than you otherwise might. The National City acquisition was not for the faint of heart in terms of where we were [in 2008] on a capital basis.”

One of the most profound examples of winners profiting at the expense of the losers occurred in Texas during the late 1980s. From 1980 through 1989, 425 Texas banks failed — including the state’s seven largest banks.

The root cause of the Texas banking crisis was the collapse of the global oil market, and later, the state’s commercial real estate market.

The first big Texas bank to go was actually Houston-based Texas Commerce, which was acquired in 1986 by Chemical Bank in New York. Texas Commerce had to seek out a merger partner after absorbing heavy loan losses from oil and commercial real estate. Through a series of acquisitions, Chemical would later become part of JPMorgan Chase & Co.

Two years later, Charlotte, North Carolina-based NCNB Corp. acquired Dallas-based First Republicbank Corp. after it failed. At the time, NCNB was an aggressive regional bank that had expanded throughout the southeast, but the Texas acquisition gave it national prominence. In 1991, CEO Hugh McColl changed NCNB’s name to NationsBank; in 1998, he acquired Bank of America Corp. and adopted that name.

And in 1989, a third failed Texas bank: Dallas-based MCorp was acquired by Bank One in Columbus, Ohio. Bank One was another regional acquirer that rose to national prominence after it broke into the Texas market. Banc One would also become part of JPMorgan through a merger in 2004.

You can bet your ten-gallon hat these Texas deals were transformative. Today, JPMorgan Chase and Bank of America, respectively, are the state’s two largest banks and control over 36% of its consumer deposit market, according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Given the size of the state’s economy, Texas is an important component in their nationwide franchises. 

Indeed, the history of banking in the United States is littered with examples of where strong banks were able to grow by acquiring weak or failed banks during an economic downturn. This phenomenon of Darwinian banking occurred again during the subprime lending crisis when JPMorgan Chase acquired Washington Mutual, Wells Fargo & Co. bought out Wachovia Corp. and Bank of America took over Merrill Lynch.

Each deal was transformative for the acquirer. Buying Washington Mutual extended JPMorgan Chase’s footprint to the West Coast. The Wachovia deal extended Wells Fargo’s footprint to the East Coast. And the Merrill Lynch acquisition gave Bank of America the country’s premier retail broker.

If the current recession becomes severe, there’s a good chance we’ll see more transformative deals where the winners profit at the expense of the losers.

Revisiting the Post-Pandemic Strategic Plan

The coronavirus pandemic has tossed any strategic plans for 2020 — which bank management teams created in late 2019 — out the window.

The banking industry has been directly affected by unprecedented challenges stemming from the Covid-19 crisis, and have quickly addressed emerging issues and adapted their procedures and operations. Revisiting the strategic plan will require executives to holistically reassess risks, challenges, potential opportunities and future goals. While banks will need to re-examine their strategic plans for operational initiatives, it is prudent to also reassess their plans for capital adequacy and approach to M&A.

Capital Planning for Defense and Offense
When reassessing the strategic plan and the impact of Covid-19, banks should consider if current capital ratios provide enough flexibility to both play defense by protecting the balance sheet in a prolonged adverse scenario, and play offense with enough capital to execute on growth opportunities. We believe it is prudent to evaluate multiple scenarios and raise capital when you can — not when you need to.

The capital markets are open today, and many banks have proactively raised subordinated debt in the second quarter. Sub-debt is an attractive form of capital due to its regulatory treatment, no dilution to ownership and relatively low cost in the current rate environment. From a regulatory perspective, sub-debt can qualify as Tier 2 capital at the holding company; proceeds can be down streamed to the bank subsidiary, which qualifies as Tier 1 capital at the bank level, strengthening regulatory capital ratios. The interest expense is tax-deductible, which reduces the effective cost.

The market appetite for sub-debt has been robust: since the beginning of April, commercial banks have raised over $3.5 billion at an average interest rate of approximately 5.50%. Historically, institutional investors were the most active buyers of sub-debt, but the buyer mix has shifted to rely on community and regional banks, insurance companies and asset managers — all looking for attractive yields.

Mergers and Acquisitions        
M&A activity has come to a screeching halt as banks prioritized an internal focus to assess risk. Only nine whole-bank M&A transactions were announced in the second quarter, compared to 67 transactions during the same timeframe in 2019. It seems reasonable to expect valuation multiples will trend lower and deal activity will be subdued until acquirers’ currencies rebound and parties have more visibility and confidence with credit quality and earnings.

On a more positive note, we expect banks to warm to the idea of mergers as strategic partnerships to strengthen the combined company with operational scale and synergies. Of course, these transactions can be challenging to complete and dependent upon similar cultures and management compatibility; however, suppressed M&A valuations provide a window of opportunity since the usual bank buyers aren’t paying rich premiums in the current environment. Economic consideration in a strategic partnership is typically majority stock, not cash, so both parties are reinvesting and have potential to increase the combined company’s value for a more-advantageous positioning when the market recovers.

If you were planning on being a buyer in the next 12 to 18 months, it is important to evaluate how your M&A strategy and priorities may have changed. Buyers with a strong public currency or excess capital will maintain their competitive advantage, but need to be highly selective and strategic for their next deal. Among other things, acquirers will need to bolster the due diligence process to address new challenges and risks.

If you were planning on being a seller in the next 12 to 18 months, focus on identifying your potential buyers, how your valuation may have changed and how you can position the bank to improve the valuation. It is prudent to engage with external advisors in this process, including an investment banker and legal counsel to evaluate these scenarios in detail, even if there is no urgency for a transaction.

These are unprecedented times, and every day seems to bring a new challenge. While it is impossible to predict what will transpire in the next six to 12 months, it is important to update the strategic plan to position your bank to protect shareholder value and take advantage of opportunities.

Information contained herein has been obtained by sources we consider reliable, but is not guaranteed and we are not soliciting any action based upon it. Any opinions expressed are based on our interpretation of data available to us at the time of the original publication of the report. These opinions are subject to change at any time without notice.

Realities Beyond the Balance Sheet Facing Bank Buyers

Financial leaders face new and unique challenges as the navigate the remainder of this year and well into 2021.

The early reads on credit quality, credit access, operational and execution risk, regulatory oversight impacts and dimming growth prospects paint a bleak picture. Underlying this environment is an ongoing consideration for consolidation forcing institutions to assess their long-term viability. A closer examination of tangible book values clearly demonstrates who could be the buyers and potential sellers.

So, what is so different for M&A now? I have always believed that no two deals are the same —and that remains true. In the past, we may have looked solely at regulatory good standing, loan concentration, deposit pricing and distribution like geography and branches. While these remain fundamentally most important at the core, we now fully expect to see a heightened focus in due diligence around key layers of bank leadership, corporate culture and values, ability to deliver digital offerings to key customer segments, financial literacy programs and community investment.

A recent study by Deloitte noted that more than ever, bank M&A strategies need the right tools, teams and processes — from diligence through integrations — to pull off successful mergers. Additionally, buyers need to consider the compatibility and integration of any digital tools and how they will meet customer expectations. Can your bank deliver what these customers expect?

Most institutions looking to acquire or be acquired need to address several non-financial topics when considering how to proceed. Five in particular are consistently under-communicated by acquirers and will be even more impactful moving forward. These items speak to the fit of the merger partners — the intangible elements that cause the difference between a high customer retention rate with a platform for organic growth or a tepid retention rate with little sign of future organic growth.

1. Strategic Leadership
How an institution’s leaders navigated the recent Covid-19 pandemic says a lot about what investors, employees, customers and communities can expect if it merges with another bank. For example, the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program may have given some banks lessons and plans that may make them potential partners worth exploring. No one knows what lies ahead, but strategic leaders must be able to think, clarify and execute during these new M&A conditions.

2. Bank Culture and Values
Most banks have a mission, vision and values statements. Until the current environment, how leaders must lead to make employees feel included and valued had not been challenged. But in almost every M&A engagement, there are significant segments of impacted employees and customers that experience uncertainty and fear. Demonstrated values can go a long way to secure trust and help the execution of these transactions succeed.

3. Digitization Expectations for Employees and Customers
Many institutions were not prepared for what occurred earlier this spring. Disaster recovery and business resumption plans were a solid start, but many were insufficient for this type of event, requiring operations and services to move off-site in a matter of days.

But aside from the initial challenges of the PPP, most banks appear to have done an outstanding job of helping employees work from home without too much customer disruption. This operating model will be the new way forward in banking. When banks merge, it is important to understand how each institution’s plan worked, and how much or little displacement that model could be for employees and customers going forward.

4. Financial Literacy and Inclusion
The reality of how our country has operated over decades has come into focus during the pandemic. One issue that many banks have identified is access to capital and providing banking services in a service-blind manner going forward. Financial literacy and inclusion must be a tenet in creating a more-effective banking system. Aligning how these programs can work, collaboration and inclusiveness can create a platform for capital distribution that works with any institutional strategy and grows exponentially after a merger.

5. Community Investment
Many institutions have invested significantly in community programs over the years. In a merger, these groups need to understand what the plan for that support will be going forward. The pandemic has made it even more important to discuss and support these investments in communities, given the struggle of many organizations these days. While these five items are not exhaustive, we know that they are among the top issues of executives, employees and customers at prospective selling institutions.

Pandemic Challenges, Strengthens Bank’s Deal Integration

One bank found that the Covid-19 pandemic actually accelerated its deal integration, creating a stronger pro-forma institution to serve clients after overcoming a number of unexpected hurdles.

The coronavirus crisis has thrown a wrench in bank mergers and acquisitions, challenging everything from due diligence to pricing to regulatory and shareholder approvals. Only two bank deals were announced in May, according to S&P Global Market Intelligence; potential buyers and sellers seem to be focusing on assisting customers while they wait for a normalized environment. But Sandy Spring Bancorp found itself with no choice but to adapt its deal integration with Rockville, Maryland-based Revere Bank, even as both banks shifted to a remote work environment.

For us, it’s very important to understand that not just the successful integration, but a successful acquisition is centered around finding the right partner to begin with,” says Sandy Spring President and CEO Daniel Schrider. “And it’s really important … to find an organization that either complements what we do or provides access to a different market that maybe we’re not in, but has a shared vision around client relationships.”

The Revere team was well-known to Sandy Spring, with executives serving on their state bank association as well as competing against each other for local deals. After talking for about 18 months, they announced their merger agreement in September 2019; the deal pushed the Olney, Maryland-based bank above $10 billion in assets.

For months, deal integration proceeded as expected. The banks kicked off internal communication campaigns to keep both groups informed of the timeline, process and upcoming changes, and increase comradery before merger close. They formed 20 cross-functional teams of employees from both companies that tackled specific integration-related tasks or objectives, which met through mid-February.

“Both companies had tremendous first quarters. We were very excited about bringing the two organizations in a new structure and pulling the trigger on a number of things, based upon our ability to be together,” he says. “Then obviously, things came to a screeching halt.”

Once the pandemic closed physical offices, Sandy Spring used video and electronic communication to continue integration work. The pro-forma executive team created welcome videos featuring Schrider, along with digital and virtual orientations, instead of the usual face-to-face interactions.

But the integration encountered yet another unexpected challenge: the Paycheck Protection Program. The Small Business Administration loan program began accepting applications on April 3, two days after the Revere acquisition closed.

All of a sudden, two companies were faced with trying to solve the problems that many of their clients are having,” Schrider says. “That actually accelerated our integration.”

The newly combined teams, which pride themselves on being relationship focused, worked together to fulfill the unsolicited loan demand. They hosted daily PPP calls and involved more than 200 employees to process applications from customers at both banks. The undertaking combatted any inertia they may have felt about actually combining and functioning as one company.

“In a strange way, we’re probably in a better place today than we would have been, absent a pandemic, from the standpoint of being together,” he says. “Even though we’re not physically together.”

Sandy Spring believes picking a bank partner with similar values and staying focused on its strategy helped the pro-forma institution navigate deal-specific challenges. For instance, the all-stock deal for Revere originally carried a price tag of $460.7 million when it was announced in September; at close, it was valued at $287 million based on Sandy Spring’s quarter-end stock price, according to S&P Global Market Intelligence. Schrider says potential buyers and sellers should avoid fixating on absolute deal price, and instead consider the relative value and potential upside of the combined entity’s shares.

So far, the only integration activities that the pandemic has paused are reorganization efforts the bank believes are best done in person, including the planned appointment of Revere co-CEO Ken Cook as executive vice president. The systems conversion and branch consolidation are still on track for the third quarter. Until then, the pro-forma institution will continue to integrate while serving clients during the pandemic.

“It’s been a wild ride but a good one,” Schrider says.

Pending, Future Bank M&A Challenged by Coronavirus Crisis

The coronavirus pandemic has complicated bank M&A, throwing prospective buyers and sellers into limbo.

The crisis and economic fallout have made mergers and acquisitions an even-more tenuous proposition for banks that find themselves in the middle of a uniquely challenging operating environment. Industry experts believe that activity may come to a standstill for the time being but see opportunity for patient buyers once it thaws.

“I think it’s kind of high drama in every situation, if you put yourself on the board of either side of these transactions,” says Curtis Carpenter, principal and head of investment banking at Sheshunoff & Co. Investment Banking. “I’m really surprised that more deals have not fallen apart, quite frankly.”

Deals that have held together so far are most likely situations where both parties have been equally impacted by the economic shutdown and believe that the transaction’s merits will remain unchanged once the pandemic subsides, he says.

But the selloff in the equity markets has weighed on valuations for stock-based deals, making them untenable for some parties. Increasing credit risk, low interest rates, net interest margin compression and high unemployment are all headwinds for bank earnings, creating a potential ceiling on stock valuations. The average share price of an acquirer with an outstanding transaction has dropped about 20% in the last three months, says Crowe partner Rick Childs. If a transaction was all stock, the discount is fully included in the price; a split between cash and stock dilutes the selloff discount.

Half of the eight deals that have been terminated since the start of the year were impacted by the coronavirus crisis, Childs says. The largest of the terminated deals was the proposed $3.3 billion merger between the $36 billion Texas Capital Bancshares, based in Dallas, and Independent Bank Group, which is based in McKinney, Texas, and has $16 billion in assets. Several more have been postponed or renegotiated.

Buyers may try to argue that stock declines are temporary, though some are choosing to renegotiate. San Diego-based Southern California Bancorp, which has $852 million in assets, disclosed in April that it had renegotiated its October 2019 merger agreement with CalWest Bancorp. It lowered its all-cash offer by 19% for the Rancho Santa Margarita, California-based bank, to $25.9 million. The acquisition of the $226 million bank closed June 1.

But there is still risk for cash buyers and other parties committing to closing a deal. For years, credit had been so clean that buyers risked “giving lip service” to doing due diligence on a seller, Childs says. Now, acquirers must take pains to understand the potential risks they might be buying, especially as banks process deferrals and loan forgiveness applications for the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program.

Deals may also take longer to close during the pandemic because regulators have limited capacity, though not in every case. Childs is involved in some delayed deals because regulators have shifted their attention away from applications to assisting banks with changing policies and emerging issues or questions. Banks that have announced delays are adding an average of two additional months, he says.

However, some banks have managed to receive timely, or early, approvals. CenterState Bank Corp., which has $19 billion in assets and is based in Winter Haven, Florida, disclosed that it had received all regulatory approvals ahead of schedule for its merger with South State Corp., which has $17 billion in assets and is based in Columbia, South Carolina.

While the environment may be challenging for pending deals, it could be productive for prospective ones. Childs says cash buyers may find management teams with an increased interest in selling because of crisis fatigue and the anticipation of a long road to economic recovery, which could lead to compelling valuations. Carpenter counters that sellers may not want to accept a cash deal because it would be a permanent discounted valuation. Accepting equity gives the seller’s shareholders a way to ride out the recovery and could make a lower initial valuation more palpable. Both Childs and Carpenter are working on deals that have yet to be announced.

Buyers that have stock may want to include struggling fintechs in their search for potential targets, Childs says. Fintechs may have superior technology or capabilities that could add a business line or increase a buyer’s capabilities, but face funding or capital challenges because of the economic crisis.

“Either taking a significant ownership stake or buying it outright might be a heck of a deal for you, and your stock is probably going to be better than their stock,” he says.

In the meantime, Childs advises banks to trim the fat from their financial statements. If a bank has been on the fence about assets, business lines or portfolios it owns, now is an opportunistic time to sell them and raise cash. It is also a good time for cash buyers to establish credit lines or loan arrangements they may use to finance a deal, but cautioned stock buyers against raising equity capital until prices recover.

“I think we’ll have a few more deals called off between now and their expected closing dates, but probably what we’ll see is very few announced deals unless we come back in a big way,” Childs says. “We may end up having a great fourth quarter because of pent-up demand, but there will probably be a dip in the middle part of the year.”

The Biggest Priorities for Banks in Normal Times

Banks are caught in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic sweeping across the United States.

As they care for hurting customers in a dynamic and rapidly evolving environment, they cannot forget the fundamentals needed to steer any successful bank: maintaining discipline in a competitive lending market, attracting and retaining high-quality talent and improving their digital distribution channels.

Uncovering bankers’ biggest long-term priorities was one of the purposes of a roundtable conversation between executives and officers from a half dozen banks with between $10 billion and $30 billion in assets. The roundtable was sponsored by Deloitte LLP and took place at Bank Director’s annual Acquire or Be Acquired conference at the end of January, before the brunt of the new coronavirus pandemic took hold.

Kevin Riley, CEO of First Interstate BancSystem, noted that customers throughout the $14.6 billion bank’s western footprint were generally optimistic prior to the disruption caused by the coronavirus outbreak. Washington, Oregon and Idaho at the time were doing best. With trade tensions and fear of an inverted yield curve easing, and with interest rates reversing course, businesses entered 2020 with more confidence than they entered 2019.

The growth efforts reflect a broader trend. “In our 2020 M&A Trends survey, corporate respondents cited ‘efficiency and effectiveness in change management’ and ‘aligning cultures’ as the top concerns for new acquisitions,” says Liz Fennessey, M&A principal at Deloitte Consulting.

A major benefit that flows from an acquisition is talent. “More and more, we’re seeing M&A used as a lever to access talent, which presents a new set of cultural challenges,” Fennessey continues. “In the very early stages of the deal, the acquirer should consider the aspects core to the culture that will help drive long-term retention in order to preserve deal value.”

One benefit of the benign credit environment that banks enjoyed at the end of last year is that it enabled them to focus on core issues like talent and culture. Tacoma, Washington-based Columbia Banking System has been particularly aggressive in this regard, said CEO Clint Stein.

The $14.1 billion bank added three new people to its executive committee this year, with a heavy emphasis on technology. The first is the bank’s chief digital and technology officer, who focuses on innovation, information security and digital expansion. The second is the bank’s chief marketing and experience officer, who oversees marketing efforts and leads both a new employee experience team and a new client experience team. The third is the director of retail banking and digital integration, whose responsibilities include oversight of retail branches and digital services.

Riley at First Interstate has employed similar tactics, realigning the bank’s executive team at the beginning of 2020 to add a chief strategy officer. The position includes leading the digital and product teams, data and analytics, as well as overseeing marketing, communications and the client contact center.

The key challenge when it comes to growth, particularly through M&A, is making sure that it improves, as opposed to impairs, the combined institution’s culture. “It is important to be deliberate and thoughtful when aligning cultures,” says Matt Hutton, a partner at Deloitte. “It matters as soon as the deal is announced. Don’t miss the opportunity to build culture momentum by reinforcing the behaviors you expect before the deal is complete.”

Related to the focus on growth and talent is an increasingly sharp focus on environmental, social and governance issues. For decades, corporations were operated primarily for the benefit of their shareholders — a doctrine known as shareholder primacy. But this emphasis has begun to change and may accelerate alongside the unfolding health crisis. Over the past few years, large institutional investors have started promoting a more inclusive approach known as stakeholder capitalism, requiring companies to optimize returns across all their stakeholders, not just the owners of their stock.

The banks at the roundtable have embraced this call to action. First National Bank of Omaha, in Omaha, Nebraska, publishes an annual community impact report, detailing metrics that capture the positive impact it has in the communities it serves. Columbia promotes the link between corporate social responsibility and performance. And First Interstate, in addition to issuing an annual environmental, social and governance report, has taken multiple steps in recent years to improve employee compensation and engagement.

Despite the diversity of business lines and geographies of different banks, these regional lenders shared multiple common priorities and fundamental focuses going into this year. The coronavirus crisis has certainly caused banks to change course, but there will be a time in the not-too-distant future when they and others are able to return to these core focuses.