Bridgehampton National Bank Penetrates A Western Frontier

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Bridge Bancorp is making its first foray into Nassau County, having recently agreed to buy First National Bank of New York, whose branches are in Merrick and Massapequa, as well as in Melville in Suffolk County.

First National has assets of $276 million. Bridge Bancorp—the parent company of Bridgehampton National Bank—has assets of roughly $1.7 billion. When the deal is finalized, the firm’s assets will rise to $2 billion, and the number of its branches will go to 26, extending from Montauk to Mattituck to Merrick.

Bucking a trend of large, national banks devouring local ones, however, the Bridgehampton-based bank will keep its focus on community, primarily commercial banking, as well as its home port, according to Kevin O’Connor, the president and CEO.

“We can get in the car and drive to the customer,” said Mr. O’Connor, who, as he spoke, happened to be driving to Bridgehampton on his way back from a trip to Center Moriches. “What’s nice about Long Island as a marketplace is it’s densely populated,” he said. “We can still get from one end of our franchise to the other in an hour and a half.”

Bridge Bancorp had assets of slightly less than $600 million and 14 branch offices in 2007, when he first came on as CEO. The bank then “really sort of jump-started” its expansion efforts, and the number of branches continued to rise—to 19 in 2010, 20 in 2011, and 22 in 2012. Bridgehampton made its first acquisition, in 2011, of the single-branch Hampton State Bank on Windmill Lane in Southampton Village.

In 2013, with offices as far west as Deer Park, there was really only one way to continue to expand—farther west. “There’s no moat between the counties,” Mr. O’Connor pointed out.

Melville is a hub of offices and industrial parks, and First National’s three branch offices are visible and attractive, the CEO said. “We can leverage those locations by doing the kind of community banking that we’ve been doing out here for over the last 100 years,” he said. “We can make loans and provide other banking services to the businesses and people who live and work around these branches.”

The transaction is expected to close early in 2014, pending approval from the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, and First National’s shareholders. On October 2, Bridge Bancorp announced a public stock offering of almost $35 million both to fund the acquisition and to increase capital for making loans.

“We’re happy that they’ve chosen our bank,” First National’s CEO, John Stewart, said on Friday.

Although Bridgehampton National Bank was founded in 1910, First National was founded only six years ago—in what Mr. Stewart called a “challenging environment” in terms of interest rates and regulations. The Melville-based bank had hoped to follow BNB’s trajectory of growth, Mr. Stewart said, but would have needed assets of a comparable size.

“Bridgehampton—that’s exactly of a size that you’ve got to be,” he said. “When Kevin describes his business model, it sounds very much like what I’ve always described to employees, customers and investors. Frankly, being like Bridgehampton … is something we were aspiring to.”

First National’s CEO said BNB’s “winning formula” would prove a boon to customers and shareholders at First National. “I certainly think it’s a great opportunity for Bridgehampton National Bank to expand west into Nassau County, both from a business growth perspective, but also as you’re looking to grow your employee base,” he added. “Obviously, having a presence in a wider trade area also enables you to tap into a larger talent pool for filling positions, and obviously there are going to be some opportunities for people at our bank to fill positions at Bridgehampton based on skill set and matching it to the need at Bridgehampton as they cover a wider trade area.”

Mr. O’Connor said BNB has placed a freeze on new hiring so it can identify jobs that First National’s current employees can apply for. “All the people who interact with the customers, the branch people and the lenders, will have an opportunity to stay on with the bank,” he said. BNB has about 260 employees, and First National has about 60 employees, including a new lending team whose relationships with customers the Bridgehampton CEO predicts will prove valuable.

“We understand that it’s about relationships that banks have with their customers,” Mr. O’Connor said of the institutional culture at BNB, explaining that when out-of-state banks take over local ones, it becomes more difficult for customers to reach the people who make decisions. “As a businessman, you’ve built up the relationship with the bank that you use every day,” he said, which makes it frustrating “to have to prove yourself to somebody who doesn’t know you.”

“I spend a good deal of my time visiting my customers, going to their places of business,” as do the bank’s senior managers, Mr. O’Connor said. As BNB’s assets grow, customers will be able to secure larger loans to meet their needs without losing that personal touch, he said.

“I want to have my bank and my customers’ relationships for a long time,” he said. “Many businesses on Long Island operate across Long Island—we will basically be one of them.”

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