COLLIER COUNTY — The cookie bank is back in business.
First National Bank of the Gulf Coast opened its doors Monday after completing a merger with Panther Community Bank in Lehigh Acres. The conversion happened over the weekend.
The new community bank was formed by the same duo — Garrett Richter and Gary Tice — that started First National Bank of Florida, a high-growth bank that had a small-town feel, serving fresh-baked cookies every day. Their first bank grew to become the largest commercial bank headquartered in Florida and was gobbled up by Fifth Third Bank in a $1.5 billion deal in January 2005.
“We’re ready to rock,” said Tice, the bank’s chairman and CEO, wearing a big smile in the lobby as he greeted some of the first customers.
The new bank is getting off to a good start. On the first day, the phone lines lit up and customers eagerly came in to open accounts.
A plate of cookies was out in the lobby as it opened.
At 10 a.m., Robin Doyle and his wife, Chris, a bank shareholder, were already sitting inside the bank, going through the steps of opening a new checking account.
“We just couldn’t get here early,” he said. “We would have been here at 8:30 a.m.”
The couple _ who live a few miles away from the bank _ wanted to be sure they opened an account on the first day, just as they did at the original First National back on June 18, 1989.
Doyle said he wants the personal service that he remembers from the old bank.
“They take great care of everybody,” he said. “We know this will be a strong bank.”
Less than two hours after opening its doors, the bank had four loans in the queue. “We’re rolling along,” said Bill Galas, a senior vice president in charge of consumer lending.
The bank hoped to open in January but it could not get final regulatory approval from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. New bank charters are not going through because so many banks are failing in Southwest Florida _ and across the country.
“It has been a steep hill, but we finally climbed it,” said Richter, the bank’s president.
The merger with Panther, a small bank with one office, made it possible to get the new bank going.
Panther had no problem loans or delinquencies, making it an attractive acquisition.
With the merger, First National has $84 million in assets. “We don’t have any bad loans whatsoever,” said Richter, a state senator. “We have one of the cleanest balance sheets in the country.”
The bank had a public offering and has nearly 900 shareholders, many of them from Naples. All employees are shareholders.
First National’s focus is on offering highly personalized customer service. It’s also high-tech, offering services that are often found only at larger banks.
“Every call that comes into the bank is answered by a live person,” Tice said.
The bank has state-of-the-art technology. Computer screens are built into desks so customers can look down and see what the new accounts manager is typing as information gets inputted.
When customers are ready to get a photo taken, they don’t have to leave the banker’s office. A screen rolls down behind their head and the picture is shot by a camera linked to the computer.
Debit cards are issued on the same day new accounts are opened.
In the lobby, there’s a machine that will count change and spit out a receipt, which can be turned in for cash or deposited at the front counter. There is no charge for the service.
One bank employee saved up his change so he could try the coin machine on the first day. His grand total? $153.50. Foreign coins were spit back out.
The bank also scans all of its documents, making it virtually paperless, Tice said.
Most of the bank’s employees worked for the original First National. Three of the top level executives have more than 100 years of experience combined.
The bank has a compliance officer, who has certifications in every possible area. “We do a lot of double and triple checking,” Tice said.
The bank has hired more than 50 employees. There are another dozen or so working in Lehigh Acres.
Training is a big focus for the bank. Employees will be called into work on two holidays _ Veterans Day and Presidents Day _ to learn more about banking regulations.
The main office is at 3560 Kraft Road, just off Pine Ridge Road in North Naples.
“This is now the heart of Naples,” Tice said.
A second full-service branch is at 811 Anchor Road Drive in The Moorings.
There’s room to grow at the headquarters. The bank is occupying 33,000 square feet, with space still sitting empty.
The bank follows “the golden rule,” Tice said.
“That’s what we’re about,” he said. “We believe the customer is the only reason we’re in business. We treat every customer the way we want to be treated.”
Connect with Laura Layden at www.naplesnews.com/staff/laura_layden