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Update: Suburban bank to sell shares, lend more

The 'we try harder' bank, says boss Chris Annas

UPDATE 12/2: With other suburban Philadelphia banks (Penn Liberty, Continental, Conestoga) snapped up by larger lenders lately, Meridian Bank, Malvern, says it's trying to sell up to $15 million in common stock to support $150 million in new loans. "We think there's a great opportunity for growth in the next few years, based on all the current bank turmoil," chief executive Chris Annas told me. "As banks get bigger, they necessarily de-emphasize the smaller loans on which we feed."

Meridian is offering the shares at around $20 each. That's double the bank's initial offering price (back in 2004), "but over the years we issued four 5% stock dividends, which drops the basis to $8.23," Annas noted.

Won't Meridian, with around $650 million in assets, feel pressure to sell out if it gets a premium offer? While many banks complain it's tough to make a living with less than $2 billion in loans and investment assets, "there are many smaller and profitable banks nation-wide that can continue despite the regulatory onslaught," Annas inisists.

"This offering will provide us significant capital for growth, and reconfirm our independence to the business community. A vibrant and diversified banking sector is critical for the Delaware Valleys continued economic growth," Annas concluded.

11/27: Penn Liberty Bank was "the bank to beat – the general consensus based on capital they raised and some names on their board," recalls Chris Annas, chief executive of Malvern-based Meridian Bank, citing my 2006 article on the last Philly bank rush.

While low-profit Penn Liberty agreed to be taken out last week for a respectable $101 million (7%/yr return on the $44 million 2004-06 investment),  "Meridian has been the 'we try harder' bank ever since, and we've really outperformed them and all the other banks that started around that time, particularly in profitability," Annas told me.

Checking data, Annas is right: Meridian has been boosting assets by 10% or more each year -- and boosting profits by $1 million a year (to $5 million last year) since 2009. With similar assets, Penn Liberty has been roughly half as profitable as Meridian. (If Meridian were to sell next year at a speculative 20% profit to its new offering price, initial investors will have tripled their money in 12 years, vs slightly more than doubling for Penn Liberty.)

Adds Annas: "Our wave of startup banks from 10-plus years ago -- Continental (sold to Bryn Mawr Trust), Conestoga (sold to Beneficial), Penn Liberty -- is dwindling due to the regulatory assault on community banks. Banks have been saddled with layers of expense and scrutiny that make it difficult to generate returns for investors. The FDIC has literally shut down new bank applications, having only approved two in the country in the last six years (compared to about 30 per year prior to 2009).

"This has caused what we're seeing now: massive turmoil in the Delaware Valley banking market -- National Penn, Susquenanna (both sold to BB&T)," the deals noted above, "and far fewer options for local business owners."

That 2006 prediction was distilled by Ted Peters, the former Bryn Mawr Trust Corp. boss who now runs the Bluetone Financial bank-investment fund. Peters last week told me local banks need at least $2 billion in assets to make it worth staying independent. No word on how fast Annas plans ot grow or how long he plans to stay independent before Meridian, too, accepts a $100 million-plus offer.