An Interview with John Kanas – President and CEO of BankUnited and BankUnited, N.A.
Indisputably one of the most renowned area bankers, John Kanas, CEO of Bank United, shared his perspectives on the opportunities and challenges facing Long Island’s economy. The resuscitator of Bank United, an ailing Florida savings and loan which he transformed in a few short years to become one of the most well-capitalized financial institutions in the country, shared tips and insights on how to continuously adapt in a changing global economy.
Tell us about how you started.
I joined North Fork bank in 1977 and at age 29, I was appointed President and CEO of the regional bank – the youngest bank CEO in America at that time. 10 years later, I became Chairman and succeeding in leading the company to its initial public offering in 1982 to its membership on the NYSE and inclusion in the S&P 500 Index. In 2005, I got the sense that the economy would weaken and began talking to people about buying North Fork Bank. This culminated in the sale to Capital One in 2006 for $14.6 billion, just prior to the recession.
Tell us how BankUnited started.
BankUnited was one of the two large American banks that had been seized by federal regulators after the real estate collapse in 2008. It had 80 branches in Florida and the government was accepting bids from investors to take it over and revive it. They had sent out 63 bid packages looking for bidders. I met with Wilbur Ross, a billionare who deals in buying and selling distressed companies out of his office in New York, and I formed an investment group for this project. We took in Carlyle, Blackstone, Centerbridge, and we put in a bid for $940 million and won over two other bidders. It became almost an immediate success. After just 19 months, the company went public and was valued at approximately $3.5 billion, with $17 billion in assets. The focus of the loans the bank makes are in commercial lending, loans for apartments and multi-family buildings, and for businesses.
What is your philosophy at BankUnited?
I’ve always taught those who work for me the importance of customer service. When the phone rings, you pick it up. As far as finding the right people: I’ve been able to cherry-pick talented people I’ve known in my life, bankers with whom I have long-standing relationships.
What changes have impacted the industry?
Bank branches are not a thing of the past, but they are less important than they once were. More than 1,600 have closed their doors nationwide in the past year alone. As they are no longer a hub of activity, branches and real estate footprints are being deemphasized in favor of convenient mobile and online banking applications along with consumer lending products. Technology is the new language of banks.
How has the economy impacted the industry?
There have been massive layoffs and branch closings with the rise of ecommerce. We are also experiencing what I call the “brain drain” – the mass exodus of young people from the island to locations with better job growth. There is a downturn in housing and a crucial need for enhanced STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) programs in schools. This is vital to keeping future generations of the nation’s workforce globally competitive. As far as monetary policy: We have never been at this rate level for this long a period of time. We are uncertain about what could happen if the Fed were to crank up rates to curb inflation – these waters are unchartered. Economists are baffled. The dollar is stronger than it’s ever been but worth less. It’s a tremendous mystery for all of us.
What advice would you give to future generations?
Those of you with children, channel them to succeed in science and math. Long Island is an economic engine that drives the state – where would you rather be? This is one of the greater markets in the whole country. We have everything it takes to create growth here. Think about the role you play in local politics and policy creation. Get involved. Collaborate. We have a lot more strength working together to affect positive change.
For more information on John Kanas and BankUnited, call 1-877-779-2265 or visit www.bankunited.com