JUN 25, 2013 11:25am ET

BankUnited’s John Kanas Reunites North Fork Team

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Watch out, New York bankers—John Kanas is getting the band back together.

When Kanas sold North Fork Bancorp to Capital One Financial in 2006, he made certain not to burn any bridges with his former employees. Since Kanas' latest venture, the resurrected BankUnited, opened its first New York offices earlier this year, Kanas says he's hired about 125 former bankers, the vast majority of whom were his employees at North Fork.

"It's about 125 people, and I think there are six or seven people out of those who did not previously work for me," Kanas says.

Kanas says he has swiped his former North Fork deputies from a number of New York banks, including Capital One, Signature Bank, M&T Bank and Astoria Financial. BankUnited has completed about 90% of its hiring in New York. Kanas previously said he expected to hire between 80 and 100 bankers in New York but now it looks like he will add about 140.

These other banks have stepped up their hiring efforts as well, which has fed competition among New York banks for loans to midsize companies and commercial real estate borrowers. Signature, for example, has hired more than a dozen bankers since early March from Citigroup, HSBC Bank and Investors Bancorp.

Partly because of BankUnited's hiring push in New York, the Miami Lakes, Fla.-based company is ahead of schedule on the development of its New York loan book, Kanas says. The $12.6-billion-asset BankUnited expects to report loan growth in New York of about $200 million in the second quarter, and a loan pipeline of about $600 million, he says. BankUnited has not announced the date when it will report second-quarter earnings.

BankUnited may even be ahead of those "very impressive loan growth expectations," when it reports earnings, says Herman Chan, an analyst at Wells Fargo Securities.

"We wouldn't be surprised if the ramp-up period is a little shorter, based on John's ability to generate loans," Chan says.

"John used to manage a balance sheet of almost $60 billion before he sold North Fork," Chan says. "He has developed a lot of relationships with clients, through his decades of banking, and those clients have been very loyal to him."

Commercial real estate and multifamily loans will ultimately make up between 50% and 75% of the loan book, Kanas says. The rest will be commercial-and-industrial and small business loans. Kanas prefers commercial real estate over multifamily, according to Chan, because "multifamily is very competitive in New York and you get better spreads with CRE."

BankUnited's rivals in New York are stepping up hiring, also. In addition to Signature's hires, the $16.2-billion-asset Astoria has recruited three senior-level bankers since late April from HSBC and Sovereign Bank. Astoria continues to search for new hires, in the areas of risk analysis and personal banking, according to online job boards. Monte Redman, president and chief executive of Astoria, could not be reached for comment.

Other banks hiring in the New York area, according to online job boards, include Amalgamated Bank, Flushing Financial, New York Community Bancorp, Sterling Bancorp, and City National in Los Angeles, which has two offices in Manhattan.

Despite Kanas' early hiring success, some bankers downplay the threat presented by BankUnited.

"BankUnited is a small bank," says Greg Braca, head of corporate and specialty banking at TD Bank. "I know they've added some people, but they're still developing what their model is going to be for the greater New York market and what their model is going to be in general."

TD announced plans last year to build more than 50 branches in New York by 2016. Braca is a former head of its metro New York region.

"We wish [BankUnited] all the best," Braca says. "We don't really see them today as a peer."

BankUnited's New York push comes as the company could see a hit to its profits, as a result of declining benefits from accounting rules. BankUnited was one of more than a dozen banks that identified as in line to see a decline in accretable yield, a benefit derived from failed-bank deals. A private-equity consortium acquired the failed former BankUnited in May 2009.

Kanas also acknowledged that there is always a risk that an increase in noninterest expense outruns the benefit generated by new hires, something many other banks struggle with when considering hiring options.

"That comes into play immediately," Kanas says.

BankUnited has been slow to see benefits on some initiatives. A recent online sales pitch, titled "An Open Letter to Bankers in America," has not yet produced any hires, although there are some interviews with job prospects in the pipeline, Kanas says.

BankUnited also faces a tough competitor, at least in the area of hiring, from the $18 billion-asset Signature Bank. Signature has been "probably as active as it's ever been," Joseph DePaolo, Signature's president and chief executive, said in April. Analysts have said Signature has been successful in luring bankers away from rivals, through its compensation program, which Bob Ramsey, an analyst at FBR Capital Markets described as being heavy on commissions, and low in the area of base salary and hiring bonuses.

Kanas thinks he knows where DePaolo got Signature's compensation model.

"Signature's model looks very much like the old North Fork model and, at last count, I think they had 250 or so old North Fork employees there," Kanas says. "So you can imagine our model is not greatly unlike the Signature model."

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