Bank of America upheaval an opportunity for local competitors

On the day last week that Bank of America announced sweeping cost-cuts, including the elimination of 30,000 jobs, executives at BlueRidge Bank celebrated a milestone for the three-year-old financial company.

The Frederick-based community bank opened a retail branch in Towson, doubling its staff and adding to its existing commercial lending business in the Baltimore region.

"We're expanding in contrast to other banks that are downsizing," said J. Brian Gaeng, chief executive of BlueRidge Bank.

Bank of America's move to slash $5 billion a year comes as many financial institutions look for ways to boost profits in the face of a sluggish economy and new regulations that are expected to drive up costs. Although Bank of America — the largest financial institution in Maryland — did not provide a breakdown of job reductions by region, the Baltimore area is expected to get hit with layoffs and other cuts, analysts say.

But the upheaval also offers a potential upside here: Opportunities for smaller banks like BlueRidge to snatch up new clients and expand their business, and potential benefits for consumers.

"The smart bankers are saying … 'Could we get some of their loan clients, deposit relationships? Could we buy some of the branches?'" said Brian Casey, a Towson banking consultant.

For consumers, the continuing shake-up in the local banking market could mean better service and products, as competitors and community banks seek to attract new clients, analysts said. Some customers are looking for a more personal touch after seeing their banks change hands many times, banking consultants said.

"They've been disgruntled with their current banks," said Anita Newcomb, who runs a banking consulting firm in Columbia. "That has created opportunities for community banks."

Added Clifford Rossi, a former bank executive and regulator who teaches at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business, "You might see some slight benefit for the community banks, but don't count Bank of America out."

Financial institutions nationwide, still recovering from the financial crisis, are shoring up capital levels and dealing with problem loans.

Baltimore's banking market, too, has undergone changes in the wake of the mortgage crisis. Six banks in the state have failed, while a dozen others remain under federal supervision to raise more capital.

Two longtime Maryland institutions, Mercantile Bankshares Corp. and Provident Bankshares Corp., have been sold to out-of-state banks.

Over the years, Bank of America has established a significant footprint in Maryland. It holds $22.5 billion in deposits, or nearly 20 percent of the market, according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.

In the Baltimore region, the bank has an even larger share, with 26 percent of the market and more than 100 branches.

The company employs about 4,000 workers in Maryland, including about 1,100 at a credit card operations center in Hunt Valley.

Nancy Bush, a banking analyst and a contributing editor at SNL Financial, said Baltimore will be less affected than other markets by the job cuts because "it's still a growth market.

"Northern Virginia, Maryland and D.C. That whole market is very desirable in the banking industry," she said. "Because of the federal government and job growth, Baltimore will be one of the markets where they don't want to disturb too much of their retail footprint."

Still, Bank of America has been shedding jobs in Maryland. The bank laid off 39 people at its Hunt Valley card services center and an additional 18 people at an office in Columbia this year, according to state labor officials.

The bank said its latest restructuring, announced Sept. 12, will address consumer banking, credit card and home loan businesses, along with technology and support operations. Attrition and elimination of unfilled positions will make up a "significant" portion of the job cuts, the bank said.

Bank of America also plans to close about 10 percent of its branches in the coming years.

Casey, the banking consultant, said he expected the Baltimore region to lose some Bank of America offices because the area is "over-branched."

But shuttering branches in the region doesn't necessarily mean "Baltimore is not an attractive community," said Newcomb, the Columbia banking consultant. The move, she said, reflects how more and more consumers are banking these days: on the computer or mobile devices.

Scott Cottrell, a managing director at FJ Capital Management in McLean, Va., said small to mid-size local banks in markets such as Baltimore might acquire some of the branches shed by Bank of America. "If you're used to going to a certain branch and that branch changes hands, you might switch banks," he said.

SECU, Maryland's largest credit union, sees an opening to pick up new customers, as well as new employees who are seeking an alternative to traditional banking.

"With the economic downturn and frustration with banks, people are looking to come to credit unions with better service," said Teshia Williams, the union's senior manager of human resources.

Since the beginning of the year, the credit union has hired 60 new workers and is looking to fill 30 positions, mostly at its 19 branches in the state.

Williams hopes to pick up experienced Bank of America employees who may be affected by the job cuts. In the past, SECU has hired former employees of local banks affected by acquisitions, such as Provident Bankshares, which was bought by M&T Bank in 2008.

"It's sad to see people losing their jobs, she said. "If we have opportunities, we would like to assume some of that talent."

As the restructurings by Bank of America and other financial institutions shake out over the next few years, Gaeng of BlueRidge Bank said, the company will take advantage of the upheaval to expand its business. The bank, which opened in April 2008, now has $140 million in assets.

Banking is a "people-oriented business and so the relationships that are formed between bankers and their customers become very special and continuity is very important and experience is important," Gaeng said. "That's why we have great upside potential, particularly in a market like Baltimore where you've had a lot of consolidation over the last few years and you have fewer and fewer independents."

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