An initial public offering isn’t the only path to listing your bank’s shares on the Nasdaq or New York Stock Exchange, and gaining greater liquidity and more efficient access to capital via the public markets.
Business First Bancshares, based in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, opted for a direct listing on the Nasdaq exchange on April 9, over the more traditional IPO. Coincidentally, this was the same route taken a few days prior—with greater fanfare and media attention—by Swedish entertainment company Spotify. A direct listing forgoes the selling of shares, and provides an instant and public price for potential buyers and sellers of a company’s stock.
Business First’s direct listing could be seen as an IPO in slow motion. The $1.2 billion asset company registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission in late 2014, ahead of its April 2015 acquisition of American Gateway Bank. Business First then completed a $66 million private capital raise in October—$60 million of which was raised from institutional investors—before acquiring MBL Bank in January. The institutional investors that invested in Business First last fall did so with the understanding that the bank would be listing soon. “We actually raised money from the same people as we would have in an IPO process,” says Chief Executive Officer Jude Melville.
Melville says his bank took this slow route so it could be flexible and take advantage of opportunities to acquire other banks, which is a part of the its long-term strategy. Also, bank stocks in 2015 and 2016 had not yet hit the peak levels the industry began to see in 2017. The number of banks that completed an IPO in 2017 more than doubled from the prior year, from eight to 19, according to data obtained from S&P Global Market Intelligence.
“The stars aligned in 2017” for bank stocks, says Jeff Davis, a managing director at Mercer Capital. The Federal Reserve continued increasing interest rates, which had a positive impact on margins for most banks. Bank M&A activity was expected to pick up, and the Trump administration has appointed regulators who are viewed as being friendlier to the industry. “There’s a saying on Wall Street: When the ducks are quacking, feed them, and institutional investors wanted bank stocks. One way to feed the ducks is to undergo an IPO,” Davis says. Bank stock valuations are still high, and so far, 2018 looks to be on track for another good year for new bank offerings, with four completed as of mid-April.
The more recent wave of bank IPOs, which had trailed off in 2015 and 2016, was largely a result of post-crisis private equity investors looking for an exit. As those investors sought liquidity, several banks opted for life as a public company rather than sell the bank. That backlog has cleared, says Davis. “It’s still a great environment for a bank to undergo an IPO,” he says. “Particularly for a bank with a good story as it relates to growth.”
The goals for Business First’s public listing are tied to the bank’s goals for growth via acquisition. Private banks can be at a disadvantage in M&A, having to rely on all-cash deals. A more liquid currency, in the form of an actively-traded stock, is attractive to potential sellers, and the markets offer better access to capital to fuel growth. Melville also believes that most potential employees would prefer to work for a public versus a private company. “Being publicly traded gives you a certain stability and credibility that I think the best employees find attractive,” he says.
Business First’s delayed listing was a result of leadership’s understanding of the seriousness of being a public bank, and the management team focused on integrating its acquisitions first to be better prepared for the listing.
“You really have to want to be a public company and make the sacrifices necessary to make that possible,” says Scott Studwell, managing director at the investment bank Stephens, who worked with Business First on its pre-public capital raise but not its direct listing. “There has to be a lot of support for doing so in the boardroom.” The direct preparation for an IPO takes four to six months, according to Studwell, but the typical bank will spend years getting its infrastructure, personnel, policies and procedures up to speed, says Lowell Harrison, a partner at Fenimore, Kay, Harrison & Ford. The law firm serves as legal counsel for Business First. Roadshows to talk up the IPO and tell the company’s story can have executives traveling across the country and even internationally.
And the bank will be subject to Wall Street’s more frequent assessment of its performance. If a bank hits a road bump, “it can be a rough go for management in terms of looking at the stock being graded by the Street every day, not to mention all the compliance costs that go with being an SEC registrant,” says Davis. All of this adds more to the management team’s plate.
Considering a public path is an important discussion for boards and management teams, and is ultimately a strategic decision that should be driven by the bank’s goals, says Harrison. “What is the problem you’re trying to solve? Do you need the capital? Are you trying to become a player in the acquisition market? Are you just simply trying to create some liquidity for your shares?” Filing an IPO, or opting for a direct listing, should check at least two of these boxes. If the bank just wants to provide liquidity to its shareholders, a listing on an over-the-counter market such as the OTCQX may achieve that goal without the additional burden on the institution.
In considering the bank’s capital needs, a private equity investor—which would allow the bank to remain private, at least in the near term—may suit the bank. Institutional investors favor short-term liquidity through the public markets, which is why Business First was able to obtain capital in that manner, given its near-term direct listing. Private equity investors are willing to invest for a longer period of time, though they will eventually seek liquidity. These investors are also more actively engaged, and may seek a board seat or rights to observe board meetings, says Studwell. But they can be a good option for a private bank that’s not ready for a public listing, or doesn’t see strategic value in it.
Though Business First’s less-common path to its public listing is one that could be replicated under the right circumstances, the majority of institutions that choose to go public are more likely to opt for a traditional IPO. “The reality is that direct listings are very rare, and it takes a unique set of circumstances for it to make sense for a company,” says Harrison. While a direct listing provides more liquidity than private ownership, be advised that the liquidity may not be as robust as seen in an IPO, which tends to capture the attention of institutional shareholders. “Usually, it’s the actual function of the IPO that helps kickstart your public market activity,” he adds. And if the bank needs an injection of capital—and determines that a public listing is the way to do it—then an IPO is the best strategic choice.