Banking Today in Coral Gables

Five Key Trends 

Think about bank leaders in Coral Gables, and you may not quickly picture digital marketing expert Christine Esteve. The Gables High grad studied advertising and worked 28 years with Carnival Cruise Lines. Now, she’s Chief Marketing Officer at Amerant, the biggest bank headquartered in the city. Her focus: building brand awareness and putting the customer first, a skill she mastered in hospitality. 

Esteve represents the changing face of local banking. Banks nowadays are becoming more digital and bigger, requiring more specialized staff. What’s more, with costs for technology and compliance soaring, they’re looking to grow further in order to spread rising costs over a wider base. Some are expanding north, especially into the Orlando, Tampa, and Jacksonville areas. Others are adding new business lines to attract specific groups of customers, such as law firms or even buyers of luxury yachts. 

Banking Today in Coral Gables

There’s plenty of cash for the banks to pursue and lend. Thousands of newcomers have moved to South Florida since Covid began, and in Coral Gables it’s often wealthy entrepreneurs or finance executives relocating from high-tax states and bringing millions of dollars with them to deposit and invest. Plus, capital keeps streaming out of Latin America, including from Brazil, where worries abound over upcoming elections. 

The changes mean a plethora of new positions at banks that professionals in varied fields might not have considered – jobs in information technology, social media, digital financial services, and strategies, for instance. Esteve herself had not expected to enter banking but found a strong fit for her skills. 

“Like other industries, banking now has increased competition and disruptors. How can your brand stand out amid all the noise?” asks Esteve. “Having a Chief Marketing Officer at the table who’s really being the voice of the customer, from research and insights we know, has become key.” 

Going Digital 

Covid sped up the shift toward online business, so one big question for bankers today is how best to increase digital tools at both branches and online, enhancing “bricks and clicks.” Their options depend partly on bank size and customer base. 

At Palmetto Bay-based Sunstate Bank (assets: around $500 million), a three-branch bank with a Coral Gables office, CEO Lloyd DeVaux is outsourcing most technology needs. “We don’t have IT in-house, because it’s very complex and specialized,” says DeVaux. “With a national firm, we can bring in a specialist for every area, and we’re more protected against cybercrime.” 

Banking Today in Coral Gables - Loyd Devaux

Sunstate is now partnering on a digital platform that links with a large U.S. brokerage, so customers can easily buy and sell U.S. stocks and bonds and transfer cash in and out of their bank accounts. It’s rolling out the new feature first in the United States and Brazil, then to other nations for its diverse clientele. 

Still, even outsourcing creates specialty jobs at banks. SunState now is hiring a chief of digital financial services to work with external providers and head up new initiatives, says DeVaux. 

At fast-growing Professional Bank (assets: near $3 billion), CEO Abel Iglesias instead leans toward in-house options. A group of South Floridians formed Gables-based Professional in 2008 to serve local businesses, prioritizing service and relationships. Iglesias helped launch the bank’s Digital Innovation Center in 2018, including experts hired on staff in Ohio. The Center recently debuted software that lets customers open a personal checking account on their mobile phone in as little as three minutes. At the same time, those customers can opt to connect with their personal banker, easing communications. 

“We don’t want to use technology to replace person-to-person contact, but instead enhance it,” said Professional’s Chief Information Officer Ryan Gorney at the software launch in October. 

Meanwhile, under new CEO Jerry Plush, veteran Amerant (assets: $7 billion-plus) is busy partnering with financial tech ventures to meet specific needs. Last spring, Amerant teamed with fintech firm Numerated to offer a platform that can pre-fill borrower information on applications for small business loans, helping shorten
the lending process. Last fall, it added a Q2 ClickSwitch platform to help customers easily move direct deposits and automatic payments from one bank account to another – to name just two new offerings. 

Heading North

To bulk up and better compete, some local banks are heading north in Florida, creating jobs elsewhere in the state. 

City National Bank of Florida, the Miami-based powerhouse that runs its executive offices from Coral Gables (assets: near $22 billion), is among the most aggressive. City National leased a large Central Florida headquarters in a downtown Orlando tower in 2020. And last year, it formed an Orlando advisory committee of business and community leaders to help deepen ties there. 

Professional Bank just opened loan production offices in the St. Petersburg/Tampa and Jacksonville areas, initially employing eight people there. The appeal: opportunities in tech and other booming industries, as the Sunshine State as a whole attracts new residents and investments. A 2020 report by Lending Tree ranked greater Tampa No. 3 nationwide for small business, surpassing all other areas in Florida. 

Banking Today in Coral Gables

Doral-based U.S. Century Bank (assets: near $2 billion) is expanding closer to home. It’s announced a loan production office for north Broward and Palm Beach counties, growing beyond its south Broward branch in Hollywood. “We have a philosophy to follow our clients. As they expand, we follow them into other counties,” says CEO Luis de la Aguilera, pointing to business loans to clients for projects in Orlando and Jacksonville. “I’m a jealous guy,” he jokes. “They don’t need to find another bank.” 

Adding New Business Lines 

Flush with liquidity, banks are looking to boost their lending activity. De Aguilera knows it’s vital to diversify loan portfolios. The former CEO of Miami’s TotalBank, he took the helm of smaller, younger U.S. Century in 2015 when TotalBank was changing hands. He’s since turned around U.S. Century’s finances, paving the way for its initial stock sale on the Nasdaq exchange last July that raised $40 million. 

When de la Aguilera came on, U.S. Century had loans concentrated in commercial real-estate, a sector that struggled with the Great Recession. Now, the bank looks more broadly to owner-operated businesses. Its new Gables office at 396 Alhambra Circle serves numerous law firms and other professional service companies. 

U.S. Century has been adding lending specialties, hiring experts for each, including U.S. Small Business Administration loans. Its latest addition: luxury yachts. “There really isn’t any other local community bank that has thrown their hat in the ring on marine financing, especially for high-end yachts,” says de la Aguilera. He’s keen to help qualified yacht borrowers, because buyers of multi-million-dollar pleasure craft often upgrade to newer or larger vessels, while paying off their initial boat loan within a few years. Plus, courting wealthy, local yacht buyers can build relationships for other banking activities. 

“With these new business lines, you really need to talk to an expert who knows what they’re doing,” says de la Aguilera. As bank size and competition grow, “this is not the time to be a lending generalist.” 

Strengthening Services in Wealth Management 

Perhaps the biggest specialty push statewide is in wealth-management, and that’s where Lisa Simington comes in. She heads up Florida operations for PNC Private Bank, the wealth management arm of Pitts- burgh-based PNC Bank. PNC last year bought BBVA USA to become the country’s seventh largest bank (assets: now topping $460 billion.) 

Simington is building local wealth management teams at select PNC offices, including the bank’s ample Plaza Coral Gables suite that debuted last year. The teams include certified financial planners, investment advisors and other specialists that help families invest for retirement, future generations, and other purposes. 

Lisa Simington

One way she’s reaching out: Offering webinars that spell out procedures to establish Florida residency, including the number of days spent in the Sunshine State and away from the state where the potential client lived. Folks can’t claim Florida domicile for tax purposes and spend most of their time in California, for example. Officials in high-tax states often check that rules are followed to safeguard their state revenue. 

“We advise folks that claiming Florida as their legal residence is not only about having a physical address. It’s also about identifying new service providers such as dentists, doctors, pet care, and financial advisors in our state,” says Simington. She’s based in Tampa but often visits PNC’s South Florida offices, including the bank’s first Gables retail branch which just opened at 2730 Ponce de Leon Boulevard. 

Coral Gables was an easy choice to host a PNC Private specialty team, Simington says. Many wealth-management firms have clustered in the city in recent years, even moving from downtown Miami. Income numbers show why. The U.S. Census Bureau puts the median household income in Coral Gables at $100,843, nearly double the $55,660 median for Florida, for 2015-2019. 

Little wonder Miami-Dade’s longest running bank, Grove Bank and Trust (assets: roughly $1 billon), is now focusing more on wealth-management and trusts these days in its operations, which feature a Gables office. The nearly century-old bank works not only with families but also with foundations and endowments, according to CEO Sheldon Anderson. 

Focusing on Marketing and Community Outreach

Amid the tough competition, banks are turning up marketing and community outreach to build brand awareness and customer loyalty. That’s how Amerant lured Carnival Cruise veteran Christine Esteve last year. Amerant used to be privately-held by a Venezuelan financial group and called Mercantil Bank. It changed its name and began trading its stock on Wall Street in 2018. Esteve feels right at home at the bank, where many employees and clients are Venezuelan. She used to live in Caracas and in Houston, where Amerant also operates. 

Esteve is hot on digital communications to maximize her marketing budget. This year, she launched 30- and 60-second video spots on streaming channels Hulu and YouTube, targeting select zip codes near Amerant offices. She’s also courting drivers near Miami-area branches. Esteve arranged for bright, orange Amerant billboards on major highways – I95, 595, Palmetto, US1, among them – with messages featuring the word “Imagine.” The messages break with the sometimes stodgy image of banking. “The idea is to help our customers live life beyond what they imagine,” even to imagine a bank that knows your name, says Esteves. 

Amerant billboards in the Miami area feature the word “Imagine”

City National, meanwhile, is expanding outreach partly through sports. It just a signed a multi-year deal to sponsor a Major League Soccer team, Inter Miami CF. “We look forward to advancing the love of futbol to the communities we serve,” said CEO Jorge Gonzalez in announcing the partnership. 

Still, there are headwinds in banking. It’s tough for local banks to vie against giant national chains. Bank of America and Wells Fargo alone hold about one-third of deposits in Florida, reports show. The state’s robust economy is grappling this year with increases in energy prices and U.S. interest rates. And there’s a chance that fintechs might one day move beyond software offerings and become banks themselves. 

“Fintechs come out of Silicon Valley with billions of dollars in financing,” says banking analyst Ken Thomas of Miami, who lectured for decades at the Wharton School in Pennsylvania. “They can buy a bank or apply for their own bank charter.” 

Undoubtedly, technology will be crucial to banking success, as cash becomes less commonplace. Says Sunstate’s DeVaux: “It’s feasible, in the not-so-distant future, there’s no paper currency.” That’s sure to create jobs for new specialists at banks, jobs we may not be able to imagine in 2022.