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Back on top: How troubled BankUnited returned to life

Tuesday, 10 Dec 2013 | 7:00 AM ET
Source: BankUnited

BankUnited is defying the odds. A casualty of the financial crisis, it has emerged as the nation's top performing mid-sized bank—resurrected by a leadership team regarded among the best in the business.

The Florida-based bank, which had succumbed to bad mortgages, is thriving and growing again, earning it the best-in-class honors from Bank Director magazine.

After a huge restructuring, it's now opening locations in New York. There are five BankUnited branches in the state—with a sixth due to open in Brooklyn next week.

New York is where much of BankUnited's management team resides, including CEO John Kanas, who is credited with bringing the bank back from the brink where it stood just four years ago.

A private equity group led by Kanas and W.L. Ross & Co.—famed investor Wilbur Ross' vulture capital firm—bought BankUnited in an unprecedented move. It was the first time the FDIC gave a private equity firm the go ahead to purchase a bank.

"We thought over time this would be profitable. We put up $900 million in the spring of 2009 to buy the whole company and entered into an agreement with the FDIC which required them to absorb 95 percent of the losses. Nineteen months later we took it public," Kanas said.

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The undertaking was a bold decision. Kanas had been in a bidding war for BankUnited with Goldman Sachs, which had partnered with TD Ameritrade, while private equity firm J.C. Flowers also was in the mix. Kanas acknowledged having second thoughts the night the FDIC called and said his team won.

"What we didn't know and couldn't be sure of is whether we could build this into a real franchise with strategic value," Kanas added. "As soon as you find out you won something like that, you wonder if you made the right decision. But ever since that time, we never looked back and it's been a great experience."

BankUnited currently has 98 banking centers in 15 Florida counties, which makes it one of the most visible banks in the Sunshine State.

Kanas, a former school teacher, has been in the banking business for decades. He's known for foreseeing the financial crisis and selling North Fork to Capital One in 2006 at the top of the market for $13.2 billion.

"BankUnited is now growing around a billion dollars a quarter now, " Kanas said. "We continue to keep our shoulders to the wheel and keep executing the business strategy and we are familiar with these markets."

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One would be hard-pressed to find an analyst negative on BankUnited. Sandler O'Neill, Guggenheim Securities, Keefe, Bruyette & Woods and RBC Capital Markets are among the firms with positive ratings on the stock.

"There is a small cadre of executives who have the skill set to turn banks around. Kanas is one of the leaders in that group, " said Gerard Cassidy, RBC's lead banking analyst, who has an outperform rating and $35 price target on the stock.

He notes the timing of the BankUnited deal was in Kanas' favor.

"There is one thing to keep in mind. They single-handedly got the best FDIC agreement of all the banks acquired by the private equity firms because they were the first," Cassidy said. "This is a contributing factor on why their bank stands out."

A lot of BankUnited's growth is coming from Kanas doing business again in New York, where he's hired former North Fork lenders and employees and revived old partnerships.

The bank is starting to steal market share away from New York regional banks Capital One and M&T Bank, according to Brady Gailey, equity research analyst at Keefe, Bruyette & Woods.

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"BankUnited started growing pretty aggressively about two quarters ago," Gailey said. "We think 2015 will be a breakout year for earnings per share."

Gailey, who calls Kanas' leadership "phenomenal," believes BankUnited's loan growth could offset any pressure from downside in net interest margins.

So, could BankUnited's strong performance make it a takeover target? Possibly.

Gailey believes the bank is on sale for a certain price. But, he cautions that without Kanas' star power in the driver's seat, a potential deal could cause the bank to lose shareholder appeal.

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