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Close-up: Bruce Nunes

Local retiree turned chairman sees independent future for his bank

The ebb and flow of the community banking industry is, if you pardon the local analogy, a little like the surf. It goes through periods of collective and powerful growth, and a swell of new, independent banks are formed.

Then, a few years later, the tide recedes, leaving in its wake the debris of those who didn't weather the storm of competition -- and the void of those that chose to be swallowed up by the bigger guys.

Seacoast Commerce Bank materialized during the last build-up, and it's still going strong -- independently. It was founded in 2003 by a group of individuals who wanted to fill the gap in Chula Vista's banking scene; no independent bank existed in the Chula Vista area at the time. A handful of years later, it is searching for new management that agrees with its continued philosophy: to be a key banking leader.

"Our goal isn't to be a small little bank in Chula Vista that's gobbled up. Our goal is to be major player, a big bank," said Bruce Nunes, the bank's chairman of the board. "And we want to hire someone to manage that."

Former CEO Doug Shearer retired from his leadership position with the bank in late August. Since then, Nunes has been handling more of the day-to-day operations than normal as he and his team search for the right replacement to lead the bank toward an even bigger influence.

"We're now looking for a new president, someone with local contacts in the San Diego area. What we're looking for is someone to get our sales efforts advanced and who really knows the San Diego market," Nunes added.

Nunes himself has a wealth of knowledge in the industry, with more than 37 years of experience. He actually made his way into retirement for a few years, until the opportunity to be involved with Seacoast was alluring enough to pull him back from the relative calm of being out of the industry.

"I had been retired, but our bank's attorney recommended that I might be interested in this opportunity. Since I was the one who knew most about banking, they made me the chairman," Nunes said. "It keeps me thinking about things; I wasn't ready for retirement."

Nunes began his career in San Francisco with Wells Fargo (NYSE: WFC) and stayed with the bank when he relocated to San Diego in the '70s. He recalled that Wells Fargo was not committed to this market at the time and was closing several offices. Instead of staying with that larger player and relocating to Los Angeles, Nunes decided to join area banks, including the Bank of Commerce. He remained there until the bank was bought out by U.S. Bancorp, and at that point his short-lived retirement began.

Now he's putting his solid expertise and enthusiasm behind the growth of Seacoast Bank.

"We have a new branch opening up in EastLake, about 10 miles from where we are now, in the first quarter of 2008," Nunes reported. "So we are marching along doing what we need to do."

When asked why the bank chose to expand to EastLake, which has received a fair amount of both praise and criticism, Nunes mentioned its large medical community, for which Seacoast provides successful loans, as well as potential growth from the residential community there.

Nunes said that right now, Seacoast, which has $67 million in assets, is the No. 1 community bank in San Diego County in terms dollar amounts of SBA loans. The majority of those fall within the professional sector, primarily in small business and commercial loans, although demand for the latter has slowed a bit due to the recent market shift.

For any small company to stay competitive with its larger peers today, it needs to embrace technology. Seacoast is doing just that, heading toward the implementation of remote deposit capture, which places machines in customers' offices for a more literal form of direct deposit.

"There have been a lot of changes in banking over the years, but technology is the biggest change. Banking is a pretty simple thing to do -- you take money in, you lend money out. There are different ways to evaluate a good loan, but the bottom line is pretty much the same," Nunes said. "Technology is what's changed the most. You must keep up with it in order to keep up with and attract the younger customer that's now owning his own business."

Seacoast believes one of the biggest opportunities it has to impact the community is in advising its customers. When asked what the average small business owner doesn't know about banking but should, Nunes replied, "Gee, where do you start?"

"They come in and have run their business for a few years but don't know what they need to do to apply for a loan," Nunes continued. "At a big bank, I don't even know where they'd go -- perhaps put you on a red phone to call L.A."

Nunes hasn't necessarily seen a trend in the types of small business loans for which his clients are applying, but he did note they are primarily in the customer service arena versus manufacturing.

As for the trend in his own industry, Nunes expects another round of consolidation of smaller banks in the near future.

"Some banks will make a name for themselves and will be the next generation of larger, independent banks," he said. "Our goal is to be one of those."

Blackford is a San Diego-based freelance writer.

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