Central Florida's financial institutions are jockeying for position in what could be the banking industry's most competitive year yet since the end of the Great Recession.
With many businesses investing in expansion, consumer confidence strengthening and the unemployment rate dipping, the region's banks are preparing to joust for new customers in an effort to boost their client base.
Smaller community banks, in particular, hope to capture market share from the historic leaders in Central Florida — SunTrust, Bank of America and Wells Fargo — which together hold nearly 60 percent of the region's $53 billion in deposits.
As the Big Three's huge market share has slipped in recent years, some community banks have tried to make their mark by adopting some innovative business strategies:
First Green Bank has created a brand that appeals to the environmentally minded, with its solar-arrayed Mount Dora headquarters aiming at a zero-carbon footprint and its loan rate discounts for borrowers using energy-efficient systems.
Seacoast National Bank has borrowed a Silicon Valley term to offer up "accelerator" loan officers who help mentor small businesses in everything from financing to marketing.
And a lot of traditional bankers are getting hip to the consumer's appetite for wireless bandwidth: First Colony Bank of Maitland, for example, a self-described "old-fashioned" bank, is rolling out a mobile banking app this year.
Such moves may pay off for those who push the envelope during the economic recovery, even as most other banks continue to take a plain-vanilla approach, experts said.
"We're still just beginning to get over the economic hangover of the last five years," said Rod Jones, an Orlando banking lawyer. "So it could certainly be valuable for a bank if it can come up with an approach that differentiates itself from the crowd. The challenge, of course, is coming up with the right idea."
Ken LaRoe, First Green's founder, said its environmental focus, coupled with personal community bank service, has paid some handsome dividends. It is now the 15th largest locally based bank, with deposits of $171 million in mid-2013.
"When we started nearly five years ago, nobody took us very seriously," he said. "We were such an outlier, we were the only values-based bank on the East Coast. Now there are several, and I believe people are really getting what it is all about."
Taking a new approach to small-business lending has also paid off for Seacoast National Bank, a Stuart-based bank with five Orlando area branches, officials said. Drawing its style from Starbucks and an Apple store, Seacoast's Accelerate lending "fuel cells" are geared to experienced entrepreneurs and designed to streamline the borrowing process. It approved more than $20 million in small-business loans in just over a month when it was rolled out in 2013.
But as much as the improving economy creates such opportunities, banks are also bracing for the increasing costs of new regulations, technology and other ongoing pressures in 2014, experts say.
Such pressures will cause more talk about bank consolidation, said Jack Greeley, an Orlando banking lawyer who specializes in acquisitions.
"On the merger and acquisition front, there continues to be a fair amount of discussion in the market, although it is uncertain to what extent this will lead to eventual deals," he said. "The pricing on Florida banks continues to increase and in 2013 exceeded the national average for the first time since 2007."
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Bright spots: As the economy improves, bank loan approvals will pick up and businesses will expand. Bank failures are no longer a big concern (there were only four statewide in 2013). Regulators are being more patient with banks still working through troubled loans.
Storm clouds: Even so, time may run out for troubled banks dealing with capital requirements and bad loans. Bauer Ratings have identified seven local banks at bottom of its scale.
Trends to watch: There should be more mobile and tech-based banking and fewer brick-and-mortar branches. More consolidation is expected, either "mergers of equals" or smaller banks absorbed by bigger players. Consumers should beware of more bank fees as income is squeezed.