The turn-around artist | American Banker

Thomas O’Brien has actually led Sterling Bancorp in Southfield, Michigan, because June 2020.

Big tactical discussions are “front and center” at Sterling Bancorp in Southfield, Michigan, Chairman and CEO Thomas O’Brien stated. 

First, there’s the concern of Sterling’s wacky location, with a home office in rural Detroit, about 2,000 miles east of the California markets where the bulk of the bank’s customer base runs. 

“It’s an odd construct,” O’Brien stated. “I would argue your executive management should be close to the employees, to customers and markets, especially in a community bank. Remoteness in and of itself is a risk. … From my perspective, it’s very hard to have the CEO 2,000 miles away from the business.” 

Then there’s the proverbial elephant in the space: The sale of the business. While O’Brien was mum on the concern in a current interview, observers and experts think the $2.4 billion-asset Sterling is taking a difficult take a look at the possibility of striking an offer. 

Ben Gerlinger, who covers Sterling for Hovde, composed in a research study note June 20 that the business “will ultimately be well-positioned to find a partner later this summer,” specifically after its choice to redeem $65 million in high-interest subordinated financial obligation the business offered in 2016 and 2017, prior to its unfortunate going public. 

Gerlinger identified redemption of the subordinated financial obligation — which was finished July 15 — as a “shareholder friendly” choice that must lead to a considerable increase to Sterling’s net interest margin at a time when numerous banks are fighting compression. In a subsequent research study note July 27, Gerlinger recommended interest in Sterling would strengthen as the banking market stabilizes. “Ultimately, Sterling could offer…both bootstrapped earnings and excess capital, depending on deal structure, while also expanding/deepening into California,” where 26 of Sterling’s branches lie, Gerlinger composed.

O’Brien, in a June 15 news release, described the redemption as a “watershed moment” for Sterling. He included that the subordinated notes “have been an expensive drag on earnings, carrying an interest rate in excess of 12%.” 

To make sure, moving the home office to the West Coast, redeeming 10s of countless dollars in subordinated financial obligation and possibly selling Sterling are weighty problems to think about. O’Brien, for his part, stated he was thrilled to be mulling them over — rather of the issues that challenged him when he consented to sign up with the business in June 2020. 

“It’s certainly wonderful not to be talking about punitive stuff and more about strategic things,” O’Brien stated. 

Three years earlier, when Sterling employed him, the message O’Brien provided was starkly various. O’Brien alerted Sterling’s board the survival of the business was at stake. Regulators at the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency had actually recognized severe problems in Sterling’s most significant organization line, its Advantage Loan program. Those discoveries caused an extensive criminal examination by the Department of Justice and eventually a guilty plea to securities scams. There was likewise a parallel examination by the Securities and Exchange Commission, along with the looming danger of suits by mad investors. 

It sufficed to overwhelm what was, after all, a little thrift. Sterling had actually been chartered in 1984 as a federal cost savings bank. “I can understand the description of this as an existential threat, because relative to the size of the bank, the penalties were quite large,” stated David Sewell, a partner at Freshfields Bruckhaus and Deringer and a previous counsel and assistant vice president at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. 

“The kinds of multi-agency investigations and actions, including a criminal action — that’s far more common at the higher end of the asset-size spectrum,” Sewell included. “For a relatively small thrift, it’s a lot to handle.” 

Thomas O'Brien (1).jpeg

During more than 4 years of operating in banking, Thomas O’Brien has actually established a track record for reversing struggling neighborhood banks. His existing project has actually been righting the ship at Sterling Bancorp, which just recently pled guilty to charges of securities scams that precede his period at the bank.

Banks in deep problem

O’Brien, who is 72, constructed a track record as maybe the preeminent neighborhood bank turn-around wizard throughout a 45-year banking profession. 

State Bancorp in Jericho, New York, employed O’Brien as CEO in November 2006. His arrival came less than a year after a court purchased the business to pay $44 million to a home loan storage facility loan provider that declared State’s subsidiary, State Bank of Long Island, assisted a depositor, Island Mortgage Network, misuse countless dollars in obtained funds. The judgment led to a $36.5 million loss in 2005. 

O’Brien rapidly righted the ship at State. He directed the business through the monetary crisis and in April 2011, negotiated its sale to Valley National Bancorp for $222 million, an amount equivalent to almost 2 times State’s concrete book worth. 

Engineering State’s turn-around and sale significant O’Brien as a CEO who might be gotten in touch with by struggling organizations. “It kind of opens doors for you,” O’Brien stated. “I believe that. I’ve seen it. Somebody looks at your resume and says, ‘This guy’s been through that, they’ve experienced it and done it successfully.'” 

“You fix one and all the sudden there’s another one,” he included. 

Sure enough, a brand-new having a hard time organization, Sun Bancorp in Vineland, New Jersey, relied on O’Brien in April 2014, calling him chairman and CEO. Sun had actually guided devoid of legal entanglements, however property quality issues in addition to doubtful organization choices had actually created an incredible $314 million in losses in the 4 years prior to O’Brien’s arrival. 

Once on the task, O’Brien started an uncomfortable restructuring program, offering branches, shuttering Sun’s home mortgage loaning operation and dealing with almost $100 million in issue loans. Sun went back to success in the very first quarter of 2015. O’Brien negotiated its sale to OceanFirst Financial in Toms River, New Jersey, for $487 million in money and stock in 2017. 

After the OceanFirst offer closed, O’Brien signed up with a healthy bank, New York-based Emigrant Bancorp, as vice chairman, however his experience with State, followed by his record at Sun, made it practically inescapable another struggling bank would come calling. 

“Any sophisticated board goes out of the way to find somebody who is experienced,” previous Comptroller of the Currency Eugene Ludwig stated. “Second, the [regulatory] agencies typically — in every case I know — have scrutinized that person because you have a troubled bank and they want somebody who is capable and experienced dealing with that kind of a situation, somebody they have respect for because it is a specialty.”

Turnarounds “can be done with somebody who is capable, and Tom is capable,” Ludwig, who is presently a handling partner at Canapi Ventures and CEO of Ludwig Advisors, included. 

An unwilling Midwesterner

O’Brien didn’t precisely leap at the opportunity to sign up with Sterling when the business initially called him. For something, O’Brien was born and raised in main New York and had actually invested his whole profession at banks in New York and New Jersey. O’Brien hesitated to relocate to Southfield, which borders Detroit to the north. 

His sense of hesitancy was shown in journalism release revealing his hire. “This was not an opportunity that I actively sought,” O’Brien mentioned in the release. 

“I think I said no three times before I said yes,” O’Brien included an interview. 

Then, there was the severity of the business’s issues. 

Sterling had actually participated in an official contract with the OCC in July 2019, about a year prior to O’Brien took control of as CEO. It was clear, though, that Sterling stayed the topic of examination by numerous firms. 

O’Brien’s task included reacting to those different probes, along with adhering to a significant OCC official contract. 

“The entire information technology platform, anti-money laundering department, risk management all had to be built from the ground up,” O’Brien stated. 

“In the beginning, there were a lot of 60- and 80-hour work weeks,” O’Brien stated. 

You do not get tired. Every day, you come in for action. You’re not underutilized.

Thomas O’Brien, chairman and CEO of Sterling Bancorp

A sports fan, O’Brien stated he never ever got to see the regional groups, Lions, Tigers, Red Wings and Pistons, play a video game. “I got to play one round of golf,” he included. 

The bank’s issues come from its Advantage Loan program, a low-documentation effort presented around 2011 to offer mortgage, generally to Chinese nationals and just recently showed up Chinese immigrants. Ostensibly, Advantage was a significant success, creating $5 billion in originations and driving outsize earnings, consisting of a massive $63.5 million in 2018. Sterling highlighted Advantage as the focal point of its 2017 going public, which raised $85.6 million for the business. 

According to the Department of Justice, nevertheless, Sterling had actually prepared the books, turning to extensive falsification of the documents needed to develop debtors’ earnings and capability to repay their loans. 

Sterling’s prospectus marketing the IPO “contained materially false and misleading statements that touted the soundness of the ALP loans,” the Department of Justice mentioned in a March 15 news release. “In truth, the ALP was rife with fraud.” 

Beyond adhering to the OCC order, O’Brien’s strategy to treatment Sterling’s ills included using to redeem all Advantage loans the business had actually offered to financiers in addition to total cooperation with authorities. 

“I just tried to give them whatever they wanted as quickly and as comprehensively as I could,” O’Brien stated. In the case of the Justice Department, that totaled up to more than 6 million files throughout the course of its examination. 

The method paid dividends as one-by-one Sterling revealed the settlement of legal and regulative problems. In September, the business settled a significant class-action claim, consenting to pay financiers $12.5 million. A couple of days later on, the OCC ended the official contract, imposing a $6 million civil cash charge. Hefty payments regardless of, O’Brien identified the twin statements “one of the best weeks for me personally, one of the best board meetings we’ve ever had, you name it.” 

Sterling’s most significant domino fell in March, when it pled guilty to securities scams. The contract needed Sterling to pay an extra $27.2 million in restitution to non-insider investors, however it might have been considerably even worse for the business, because the Justice Department did not enforce any extra fines. 

According to Sewell and other experts, couple of neighborhood banks have actually withstood the level of examination Sterling got. “It is quite significant and unusual to see … what effectively looked like supervisory issues surface in a criminal process. That does not happen every day,” Sewell stated. “When you consider everything this bank went through, it adds up to quite a significant package of penalties — especially relative to its size,” Sewell included.

 Like Sewell, Jeremy Babener, creator of Structured Consulting in Portland, Oregon, called it “highly unusual” for a bank the size of Sterling to draw the attention of the Department of Justice and other big law-enforcement firms, though he included its experience “can show how serious banking fraud is.” 

Indeed, where scams is included “size doesn’t matter,” stated Eric Young, a compliance professional who works as senior handling director at Guidepost Solutions in New York. “The DOJ has said that.”

“People like Tom are special. They have a genuinely unique talent, part experience, part intuitive, with a strong dose of numerical rigor,” stated Eugene Ludwig, previous Comptroller of the Currency.

Randi Baird Photography

Next relocations

For Sterling, worries about scams and the attendant effects are quick fading into the past. 

The SEC concluded its examination previously this year revealing it did not mean to advise more enforcement actions versus Sterling. Redemption of the subordinated financial obligation might have represented the last loose end in requirement of connecting. 

As an outcome of its repurchase dedication, Sterling reported about $825 countless Advantage loans on its books since March 31. In May, it revealed the sale of 84 nonperforming property credits, mostly Advantage loans, in an offer that cleaned up a considerable part of its asset-quality problems.

Sterling’s last remaining legal concern is the claim it submitted versus previous CEO Scott Seligman. The claim declares a breach of fiduciary task linked to the Advantage Loan program. Seligman has actually rejected the accusations. 

Sterling reported a $14.2 million loss for 2022, due generally to the DOJ settlement, which was represented in the business’s fourth-quarter profits. For the very first quarter, Sterling basically recovered cost, reporting a loss of $500,000. Sterling went back to success in the 2nd quarter, reporting earnings amounting to $2.5 million. In the wake of the May loan sale, nonperforming properties amounted to $2.1 million, or 0.08% of overall properties.

More significantly, Sterling reported investor equity amounting to $317.7 million on June 30, offering it sufficient resources to deal with as it plots a future course, according to O’Brien. 

“We have the unique opportunity of being able to say we can do anything now,” O’Brien stated. “We’re not wedded to one business or another; we’ve got the systems; we’ve got liquidity. It’s kind of a blank canvas. 

“At this point, there is essentially no more restorative work to do,” O’Brien added. 

With Sterling’s recovery phase winding down, O’Brien has pondered his next career move. While he didn’t rule out staying, there are factors working against a longer tour at Sterling. For one, if the board does act on his advice to relocate its headquarters, it is unlikely O’Brien would want to move with the company to California. 

“I’m not a West Coast person,” he said. 

O’Brien said he would welcome a post that provided more opportunity to weigh in on broader industry issues, particularly the future of deposit insurance. 

“From a policy viewpoint, we need to re-think the whole method the [Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.] runs and guarantees and how they charge, since it simply does not work,” O’Brien said. “It’s a 1933 idea in a world that is so significantly various.

“There are appropriate solutions here,” O’Brien included. “I think they deserve to be kicked around and thought about, maybe discarded because they don’t work. A real serious attempt at not going through this again … I probably would enjoy being part of those conversations.” 

Another function O’Brien declined to eliminate is that of turn-around CEO at some other struggling organization. Given the dominating financial headwinds, he fears there will likely be no scarcity of prospects in the future. 

“If I could be a value-add, I guess I’d have to think about it,” O’Brien stated. 

Though he called dealing with customers to craft services to credit and other monetary requirements “the best part of the banking business,” O’Brien acknowledged an “adrenaline rush” that accompanies turn-around scenarios. 

“You don’t get bored,” O’Brien stated. “Every day, you come in for action. You’re not underutilized.” 

Like O’Brien, Ludwig anticipated a financial slump would produce a brand-new crop of issue banks. “I’m sorry to say we’ll probably find a couple more troubled situations that can use Tom’s talents,” he stated. O’Brien’s desire to leap back into the fray came as not a surprise,” Ludwig added. 

“If you’re an expert … you like the chance to practice your craft,” Ludwig said. “People like Tom are unique. They have a really special skill, part experience, part instinctive, with a strong dosage of mathematical rigor.”


A news media journalist always on the go, I've been published in major publications including VICE, The Atlantic, and TIME.

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