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Close-up: Stephen H. Gordon

Opus Bank uses old-school principles to encourage clients' 'masterpieces'

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It was during his second retirement from a tremendously successful career in the financial industry that visionary investment banker Stephen H. Gordon perceived a need -- particularly here on the West Coast in the aftermath of the banking crisis -- for a bank that embodied the tenets of what he refers to as “The House of Morgan.”

That is, a bank that harkened back to the old days of banking, when clients respected the system and the system actually respected its clients.

Gordon envisioned a new, community-focused, solution-oriented, relationship-based bank with a clean balance sheet and a lot of capital that backed its clients' ideas and vision and dreams, their “masterpieces.”

On Sept. 30, 2010, after leading an investor group that infused roughly $460 million in startup capital into the acquisition and recapitalization of a bank in Los Angeles, Gordon became the founding chairman, CEO and president of his particular masterpiece, the aptly named Opus Bank.

Today, according to Gordon, Opus Bank has grown to $3.2 billion in total assets, with 58 locations up and down the West Coast, about half of which are in California (including San Diego County), with the others in the Seattle area.

“I like to say that we're located in all the major metropolitan markets of the West Coast, kind of as if we're headquartered in each of those markets,” said Gordon, who disdains the use of “branch” or “storefront” as adjectives for banking offices. “For example, we've got a team of bankers who live and breathe and are steeped in San Diego County, and their careers have always been in banking in San Diego County, so it's a very local-headquarters feel.”

While Opus Bank's principles are definitely “old school,” its bankers most definitely are not, Gordon said, adding that Opus provides banking products, services and solutions from a very holistic approach in the areas of commercial banking and income-property banking.

“We're not sleepy, stodgy bankers. We're all very entrepreneurial here at Opus, starting with me and all the way through the whole company,” Gordon said. “Which means that we work with very creative and ambitious clients who have a vision, a dream that they're executing on, whether that's the entrepreneur, whether it's the business owner, whether it's the real estate investor, whether it's the family or the professional. We challenge our clients and bring ideas to them and see what we can do to help them improve how they're operating and how their earnings are streaming through.”

Gordon, a native New Yorker, spent several years on the 104th floor of Two World Trade Center while a partner of Sandler O'Neill, an investment banking firm that advises financial institutions throughout the country. He moved to California after he retired from the firm in July 1995 at the age of 32. With his track record in the financial services industry, including raising startup capital and leading an IPO, as well as buying, selling and successfully growing financial institutions, Gordon is more than qualified to assess the current status of his industry.

“It's clearly healthier than it was a few years ago when I started [Opus Bank]. The industry overall is very well-capitalized and has a lot of liquidity and, hopefully, has learned from the excesses and mistakes of the previous decade and I believe has more discipline in it,” Gordon said. “It's clearly more regulated, as it should be. And the banking industry is comprised of many fewer institutions, again, as it should be. But you still have, for the most part, a sleepy, stodgy industry that isn't doing a lot to enable greater expansion and economic rebound.”

And that represents opportunity for an institution such as Opus Bank, which Gordon says is approximately the 250th largest of the nation's 7,000 banks.

“I think that the client base out there -- the entrepreneur, the business owner, the family, the professional, the real estate investor -- are kind of tired of the BofA, Wells, Citi, et cetera and the sleepy, stodgy, bureaucratic, silo-driven largest institutions. But the smallest institutions don't really have enough capital to be able to compete,” Gordon said. “You still need capital to be able to compete. You still need really world-class bankers to be able to compete and that's kind of lacking in the industry overall. But we kind of fit in between. We run circles, in a lot of ways, around BofA and the largest banks, be it Wells, or Chase, or Citi or whomever and we've also got a lot of capital.

Just as “Mr. Holland's Opus” was a cinematic success in 1995, Mr. Gordon's Opus is a financial success in 2013.

Lovitt is a La Jolla-based freelance writer.

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