Nonstop Jerry

By Hannah Wallace February 28, 2006

Jerry J. Williams is the chairman, president and CEO of the $1.74 billion-asset Orion Bancorp, the second-largest privately owned bank in Florida. Headquartered in Naples, Orion operates in Collier, Lee, Sarasota and Manatee counties and the Florida Keys, where the Texas transplant began grooming his thoroughbred bank 28 years ago.

Williams, the majority stockholder, put the spurs to Orion, which now ranks in the top 1 percent of banks and bank holding companies in the country. Among banks and bank holding companies with assets between $1 billion and $3 billion, Orion ranked third in the United States and first in Florida in financial performance. From 2001 to 2005, Orion posted compound annual growth rates of 34 percent for earnings per share, 38 percent for net income and 27 percent for asset growth. With many loans concentrated in Florida real estate development, Orion's return on equity has hovered around 25 percent annually for the past five years.

Affable, straight-talking and remarkably humble, Williams deflects praise of Orion's performance to the managers and employees of what he calls his "boutique bank." In 2006, moving at a steady, calculated gallop, Williams has set his sights on the green pastures of Broward and Palm Beach counties in an expansion move that will triple Orion's deposit market to about $100 billion.

Chairman of the Florida Bankers Association, a board member of the Federal Home Loan Bank of Atlanta and a member of the government relations council of the American Bankers Association, he's on the move from sunup to sundown. He pauses occasionally to look over his shoulder for signs of his competitors.

We followed Williams one day last winter, beginning at his Naples headquarters.

7:40 a.m. After rising at 6 a.m. to have breakfast with his family, Jerry Williams, 45, parks his big black BMW behind Orion's headquarters on bustling Tamiami Trail, where he takes a wake-up call from Florida Bankers Association President Alex Sanchez. The question of the week: how to handle requests for FBA fund-raising help from political candidates. Williams starts his day tiptoeing through the delicate ballet of staying neutral but relevant to the state's political powerbrokers.

8:05 a.m. Williams, tall and tan, climbs the stairs to Orion's executive offices on the second floor, meeting senior managers with urgent questions along the way. Orion's security chief updates him on some robberies of other banks near the East Coast. Could be Orlando pros who had been laying low, she tells him.

Williams pokes his head into the boardroom, where he manages to crack a smile on two of three grim-faced government auditors. "We get audited about 400 times a year," exaggerates Williams as he leaves the boardroom. "It's too nice in there. They don't want to leave."

8:30 a.m. Williams' executive assistant greets him at his small office with a review of the day's calendar and telephone messages. A packed briefcase sits against a wall. Seven photographs ring the office, all of his family-wife Heather and sons Conrad, Hunter and Wade. He met Heather in Fort Myers, where she was a competing First Union banker.

A couple of executives poke their heads into Williams' office. They rave about the previous evening's welcoming party for the Atlantic coast bankers who will join Orion as it opens 12 offices during the next three years in Broward and West Palm Beach counties. "One of [the Atlantic bankers] said, 'All these people like each other. It's like a cult,'" chuckles one of the executives. Williams smiles. He is pleased. For him, Orion's corporate culture is everything.

8:41 a.m. Williams heads downstairs for a retail briefing chaired by Andy Kirkman, Orion's executive vice president for retail business. Williams pauses in the lobby to greet a customer and some sleepy-eyed employees. He avoids a neatly stacked pyramid of doughnut holes next to the gourmet coffee and tea.

"It's a phenomenal thing," Kirkman tells the half-dozen senior managers about Orion's home equity loan production. "The loans never stop." Beaming, the managers have been reporting year-to-date production goals at 100, 150 and 250 percent. And it seems nobody is satisfied with 99 percent compliance with customer-service quality goals. A lot of "Gee, thanks guys, but I couldn't have done it without you" passes back and forth across the table.

Williams praises and then sobers the group with a warning not to let their "good feelings" override Orion's devotion to numbers.

"This is our report card," says Williams, leafing through the latest industry market report. Numbers count, feeling good doesn't, preaches Williams, a faint drawl betraying his Texas origins.

Williams chafes at another burr under his saddle. He zeroes in on a competitor's pathetic performance in the booming Naples marketplace, revealed in the report. However, the competitor's recent press release suggests just the opposite.

"Are you kidding me?" Williams asks in mocking disbelief. All hat and no cattle, he surmises. Somebody needs to look into this deception, he mutters. The SEC, bank regulators, the media who bought it hook, line and sinker. Somebody. "People can say whatever they like. That's why we like the numbers, because the numbers don't lie," Williams tells the group.

Orion's numbers are good.


Orion reported profit of $23 million in 2005, an increase of 53 percent compared to 2004's figure. Deposits were up 29 percent to $1.3 billion in 2005, while loans at Orion grew 41 percent to $1.5 billion.

Orion closed $1.15 billion in loans in 2005. Of that, $915 million was in commercial real estate, much of it construction loans. In Venice, Sarasota and Manatee, Orion had closed on $260 million in loans by the end of 2005. The bank can make loans up to $35 million.

"For us to get a clear picture, we focus on the core business." One leading indicator is the increase in non-interest bearing deposits, because "these folks don't have to bank with us," Williams observes.

Allen C. Ewing Co., an investment banking firm that tracks industry performance, ranks Orion No. 1 on its list of the top 10 high-performing community banks. Ewing says Orion has the best return on equity in Florida.

Orion's return on average equity, a measure of a bank's profitability, was 29.75 percent through September 2005. Williams estimated Orion's annual profit to reach $50 million by the end of 2005.

"We're making about $1 million a week," he says.


Williams was born and raised in Athens, Texas, a town of 10,000 south of Dallas. His family and his Texas upbringing infused him with a strong work ethic.

"You work six days a week, go to football games on Friday night, maybe a community college game on Saturday and church on Sunday," explains Williams, who played "both ways" in high school football-wide receiver on offense and safety on defense. He started cutting lawns, then inherited his brother's paper route in Athens' downtown business district. His father and grandfather, prominent business owners in town, were strong influences.

Athens was hometown to some big players: Clint Murchison Jr., one of the original owners of the Dallas Cowboys football team, and Robert Bass, who attempted an incendiary takeover of the fiercely independent St. Petersburg Times in 1990. Most of Williams' family still lives in Athens.

Williams graduated from the University of Kentucky with a bachelor's degree in business administration in 1984 and went into banking in Ohio. In 1987 a 27-year-old Williams jumped at the opportunity to become president of First National Bank of the Florida Keys. By 1994 the bank's assets had more than doubled. Williams bought controlling interest and began its transition to Orion Bank.

"I tell young people to take risks early in their careers," says Williams, who was appointed to the Junior Achievement Hall of Fame for Southwest Florida.

9:00 a.m. A conference call with the chair of the Federal Home Loan Bank of Atlanta finance committee doesn't happen, so Orion executive vice president and senior commercial lending officer Martha Huntenburg and commercial lending vice president Tom Hebble take the opportunity to update Williams on blueprints and maps across his desk. They recommend leasing more space than originally planned. But the blue paint and the '70s furniture will have to go.

10:15 a.m. Orion's downtown Naples office is a multimillion-dollar extreme makeover of a Naples legend-the Swamp Buggy, a bar known for its drive-up lane. Since it's not a retail banking operation, Orion does not need a lot of branch offices, just a few really nice ones. "It's a billboard," Williams says.

Williams is a hugger. Inside, he hugs customer-service reps and branch managers. Somebody baked cookies.

He heads to a conference room with Skip Quillen, owner of Culinary Concepts, which operates four restaurants in Naples-two Chops restaurants, Pazzo! ("crazy" in Italian) and Yabba ("everything's cool" in Jamaican).

"He started in the kitchen. I like guys who started in the kitchen," Williams says.

After Quillen's year-long tour of potential U.S. markets for opening new restaurants, Southwest Florida emerged as the winner. He wants to open two more in Naples, and he and Williams are talking. Of Williams, Quillen says it takes "vision and guts to bet on a restaurant."

"He tells us what he sees in the market, we tell him what we see in the market," Williams said. "That's the difference between a transaction versus a relationship."

Williams says Quillen was a leader in the revival of Naples' Fifth Avenue. And the success of his restaurants allowed Quillen five years ago to start Karma Club, which will raise about $250,000 for six local charities in 2005. Orion has contributed $10,000 each year. "He doesn't have to do it," Quillen says, "but he does."

Williams says it is a myth that anyone can move to Florida, open a business and ride the state's relentless population growth to success. Many mid-sized, out-of-state builders attracted to Florida's hot new home markets find themselves competing with entrenched and efficient national firms.

"It's 'Welcome to the NFL,'" he says.

Florida is a competitive state across all industries. "The profitability of the [banking] industry is 50 percent greater in the country than in the state of Florida," Williams says.

"If you cannot judge people, you will not do well," he says. "Every pro forma I've ever read shows a profit. They're supposed to. But the pro formas don't matter-it's the operator. We bank on the best operators.

"It's easy to make a loan to a CRG-that's a 'certified rich guy.' Go make a $25,000 loan to house painter in the Keys."

11:32 a.m. Williams rolls into The Estuary country club for lunch with Paul Marinelli, good buddy and the CEO of Barron Collier Companies of Naples. They were among the co-founders of the Regional Business Alliance for Southwest Florida, sort of an economic development corporation on steroids. The Alliance currently has about 60 members, active and retired national and international corporate heavy hitters.

"They fly low under the radar down here. You wouldn't believe who lives here," Williams said. Besides luring corporate headquarters to the Naples area, the group applies its considerable intellectual capital and experience to community issues such as affordable housing.

The Alliance is but one of several community projects they fit into their busy lives. "You can't keep up with it all, and it's all important," Marinelli says. "Your time is not your own anymore," he says of executives at their level.

Williams and Marinelli give their time and money to scores of community projects and organizations. "It's what we do, because it's the right thing to do," Marinelli says.

"It's a cliché," Williams echoes, "but that's what you're supposed to do." His father and grandfather planted that seed a long time ago.

Williams and Marinelli sync calendars. Williams must attend a fund raiser for the Naples High basketball team Saturday evening. "I'm going to stop in at the hospital thing first," Marinelli says. "Then I'll see you at Charlie Crist's thing on Saturday."


1:20 p.m.Williams pulls his BMW into an immaculate, cavernous hangar far from the hustle and bustle of commercial flight operations at the Naples airport. He walks about 50 feet and climbs aboard Orion's $6 million Piaggio Avanti P180, tethered to a powerful generator on the tarmac. Minutes later, the racy Italian twin turbo-prop climbs effortlessly to 10,000 feet, cruising at 300 mph toward Sarasota.

It's a sweet ride. Cream-colored leather seats for nine, plush carpeting and exotic wood trim. Would you like something to drink? No delays. No one gets bumped. No security lines. No pat downs. No hassle. Go where you want, when you want. The Piaggio is the fourth airplane that Orion has owned in 12 years. Corporate excess?

"It's one of the 100 pieces of the puzzle that has made us successful," Williams says. With the Orion footprint reaching from the Keys up the Gulf Coast to Manatee, and soon to include Broward and West Palm Beach, the airplane leverages time for Williams and his employees.

Getting to and from a daylong business meeting on Florida's east coast by car might require an overnight stay and at least eight hours of driving. "Are you kidding me? It takes me a half-hour to get from our headquarters to I-75 in my car," Williams says.

Consider the time spent, for example, by seven Orion bankers in Sarasota who must travel to Naples for a meeting. A four-hour round trip by car times seven bankers equals a lot of uncomfortable, idle talent. Williams says he tells other executives that a corporate aircraft would boost productivity and profits.

"Operationally, it's invaluable for us," he says. "When roads are blocked after hurricanes, we fly in," Williams says. "We fly in people, supplies, chain saws." Most of that help goes to Orion employees and customers. Orion offices are hardened against disaster. "We started in the Keys. We're very good at disaster preparedness," he adds.

Williams pays for any private trips out his own pocket. He likes to ski and golf, and whenever possible will arrange mini-vacations with his family as part of a business trip. Williams won't provide transportation for political candidates, but will help a customer in need. He once flew a sick relative of a good customer to a Northern city for medical treatments when a commercial flight would be intolerable.

"Do you think he will ever leave this bank?" Williams asks.

2:05 p.m. Pilot Rick Braddock and copilot Tim Reist grease the landing at SRQ and taxi the Piaggio to Dolphin Aviation, where Rich Hopper, Orion area president for Sarasota and Manatee, greets Williams. A quick stop at Orion's downtown office (more hugs) before the pair meets with Harvey Kaltsas, an acupuncture physician who is developing the Kanaya condo tower in downtown Sarasota. Before dealing with Orion, Kaltsas had been turned down for a loan by some of the largest banks in town.

"The guys at Wachovia told me, 'Go see Rich Hopper at Orion. He's the most creative banker in town,'" Kaltsas says.

Hopper turned him down, too. An acupuncture physician who had never developed a square foot of commercial real estate wanted to build a feng shui high-rise? What sober banker wouldn't? But, Kaltsas says, Hopper told him what he needed to do to get a loan: assemble a credible team of architect, contractor, designers and real estate marketers. Kaltsas did, and Orion made the loan.

Kaltsas leads Hopper and Williams to the third floor of Kanaya's superstructure. Waves of dust from brick saws and ear-splitting concussions wash over them. Mexican ironworkers wrestle with a grid of rebar, finding workspace where they can on the crowded job site.

Williams pulls market intelligence from the young W.G. Mills superintendent in charge. Building supplies availability, access to skilled labor, projects in the pipeline; Williams files it away.

Back in the downtown Sarasota office, Hopper and Williams meet with Jody Kielbasa, director of the Sarasota Film Festival. Orion has backed the festival for each of the past three years with a $10,000 donation. Kielbasa is fishing for more. Kielbasa regales Hopper and Williams with reports from the international cinema glitterati that Sarasota throws the best parties, better than Cannes or Sundance. And the festival circuit is still abuzz over Sarasota's cruise to Cannes. A large banner hung from the ship, packed with Sarasota's rich and famous, reading "Sarasota Film Festival." Toronto is stealing the idea.

"Are you kidding me? Pretty super," Williams says.

"How do you judge the success of the festival?" he asks. Ticket sales, Kielbasa says. It's the right answer-facts, not feelings. Williams closes the meeting by praising Kielbasa's efforts and hinting at more sponsorship money this year.

4:03 p.m. Williams is airborne again. The Piaggio skirts the coastline, heading south to Naples. Williams marvels at the natural beauty of Florida, a state with relatively few problems when he looks around the country. He can't imagine living anywhere else. Will he run for political office? Absolutely not, he says. Williams can barely contain his contempt for a couple of candidates in Florida races. Lobbying on behalf of bankers is as close as he wants to get to the political fires. "It's a continuous process," Williams says. For example, bankers spent 12 years lobbying for the recently enacted overhaul of U.S. bankruptcy law.

4:52 p.m. Working his way through Naples' rush-hour traffic, Williams checks his voice messages. One is from Sarasota banker Tramm Hudson, who asks for "suggestions" on how to raise more contributions for his campaign in the crowded Republican primary of the 13th congressional district. Williams laces up his ballet slippers and ponders Hudson's request when the phone rings again.

"Just wanted to make sure you're not out on the golf course," chortles Dave Wannstedt, the head football coach at the University of Pittsburgh and one of Orion's 300 or so minority shareholders.

Like Monday morning quarterbacks bellied up to a neighborhood bar, they discuss the chances of Wannstedt luring Ohio's best high school defensive lineman to Pitt. Ohio State and Michigan want the kid, too. The two had become fast friends while Wannstedt coached the Miami Dolphins. Williams had "structured a few loans" for billionaire Dolphins owner Wayne Huizenga. Williams and Wannstedt talk twice a day. Williams sold his house in Naples to Wannstedt, who Williams says is "living his dream" of returning to his hometown to coach Pitt.

What's Williams' dream? Sell Orion and cash out?

"Twenty-eight years as independent is rare," he says. He has no plans to sell Orion to the highest bidder-and there are plenty of bidders. "I get about five calls a week," he admits. "They want it all."

Williams says he's trying to "keep the small feeling. You can get larger but keep the small feeling." Orion's move into West Palm Beach and Broward will triple the size of the bank's market to about $100 billion. "Going to Palm Beach is not a big deal. We're doing the same thing we did five years ago when we expanded out of the Keys to Naples, then Lee County, then the Sarasota market. This wouldn't work in Tallahassee.

"It's not about building offices. Brick and mortar are not a problem. The question is who is going to build that franchise," Williams says. "It's not about the revenue, it's about the return on equity."

Williams, the majority stockholder, says Orion's stockholder equity should double in three years to about $160 million.

Are you kidding me?

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