Carrying the Torch: Whitney Equipment Finance Continues Legacy of Serving the Gulf Coast
by Sam Nickerson Monitor 100 2017
Whitney Equipment Finance, the newly-formed equipment finance business of Gulf Coast stalwart Hancock Whitney Bank, debuted in the Monitor 100 this year at No. 70. Managing Director Chris Bucher explains how the newcomer leveraged its parent bank’s resources and legacy of serving regional businesses into a spot in the rankings after just a year and a half of operations.
Despite launching only a year and a half ago, it should come as no surprise that Whitney Equipment Finance made its debut in the Monitor 100 this year, placing at No. 70 and reaching No. 62 on the Volume 100. After all, Whitney Equipment Finance’s parent, Hancock Whitney Bank, has a 130-year history of serving commercial interests across the Gulf region.
Before their 2010 merger, the commercial banking DNA of Whitney National Bank and Hancock Bank was heavily embedded within their footprints. For instance, Hancock Bank was founded in Mississippi in 1899 to service the growing lumber, cotton, wool and poultry trades in the area. Whitney National Bank was founded in 1883 in Louisiana to help citizens manage wealth following the World Cotton Centennial, at a time when around one-third of all cotton was produced in New Orleans.
The combined bank had plenty of experience financing equipment over the years, but lacked a formal equipment finance division until 2015. Enter Managing Director Chris Bucher and the Whitney Equipment Finance team.
“Our value proposition was to bring the equipment finance specialty to the bank, leveraging its strong regional brand and giving the bank the ability to leverage our specialty, bringing contemporary product alternatives to maximize its franchise value,” Bucher says. “Specifically understanding the bank’s strong commercial banking franchise, we’ve designed the initial product to focus, integrate and support the bank’s core middle market and corporate customers and prospects.”
Having recruited top talent and utilized resources borrowed from its parent, the fledgling Whitney Equipment Finance team was able to hit the ground running in its first full year, generating $312.4 million in new business volume in 2016, with a reported $466 million in net assets by year-end.
Here’s how they got there.
Start-Up Approach to Team Building
Whitney has brought on veteran professionals from eight different equipment finance companies in sales, capital markets and operations, all of whom have been able to contribute quickly.
Many were attracted to the autonomy Whitney offered its equipment finance professionals compared to similar positions at larger national players. Bucher viewed his own move to Whitney as a homecoming to his native New Orleans — a market he knows well.
Prior to Whitney, Bucher was national sales manager for a larger regional bank’s equipment finance company and before that led the equipment finance company of a New Orleans-based bank that was acquired by a large national bank.
Throughout his career, Bucher found himself consistently competing against what eventually became Hancock and Whitney Bank, and, in the process, became very familiar with its leadership team and reputation in the Gulf Coast region.
“After the merger of Hancock and Whitney, the bank had some really nice mass to it,” Bucher says. “Whitney has been a core commercial bank, with a deep and loyal client base across its Gulf Coast footprint. I’ve competed in the bank’s market my entire career. Knowing the leadership team, management team and, with respect for it as a competitor, I saw a good deal of opportunity.”
The Whitney team members have had to wear multiple hats as they set out to build a diversified portfolio focused on the middle market and corporate segments — which Bucher says has been instrumental in building chemistry within the team and tighter relations with the parent bank.
“The team has thrived on the challenge of building something new, and I believe that was, in part, motivation for most in joining the team. It’s a collaborative group,” Bucher says. “Every day is a learning process. To borrow and adapt a phrase from a 1970s rock song, every day is ‘another brick in the wall.’ It’s cool to see the ownership and developing leadership from the team. Everyone accepted the start-up challenge and created energy around their client bases.”
And the enthusiasm has shown from top to bottom, with parent bank management showing its support and the team getting involved in the Equipment Leasing and Finance Association.
Off to the Races
According to Bucher, the key to Whitney Equipment Finance’s structure was to “bring the delivery of an integrated product partner model and full suite of specialized debt, tax and capital markets capabilities” to its clients.
In order to achieve this, Whitney has leveraged certain strengths of its parent, such as portfolio management and underwriting, the bank’s specialized lending group and the documentation and credit team.
Many of Whitney Equipment Finance’s early successes at the end of 2015 and throughout 2016 have been through its municipal and public sector segment, where Bucher was able to leverage the parent bank’s government lending group. “This segment, by nature of its business, has a relatively short sales cycle, but is highly competitive.”
Bucher credits municipal specialists like Senior Vice President Mark Stanley, who has spent 12 of his more than 20-year financial career at institutions such as JPMorgan Chase, SunTrust and Bank of America working with the public sector, with having the right set of plug-and-play skills.
He says the municipal side of the industry has become more and more driven by financial advisors and Whitney’s specialists, like Stanley, have developed an extensive network of advisors throughout Whitney’s Southeast footprint for public sector finance.
According to Bucher, the second segment that started producing was the capital markets. After its leader, Thomas Pericak, Capital Markets Director, formerly of Key Equipment Finance, was brought on at the tail end of Q3/15, the segment began to show results by Q4/15. According to Bucher, in those early days, Whitney was focused on establishing its identity internally, in its footprint and in the national equipment finance capital market space. Its experienced team was able to capitalize on its network and began producing business right away. Bucher also cites the critical resource that its capital markets distribution capability brings to its direct team.
In addition to the municipal and capital markets segments, Whitney Equipment Finance found early success with marine and manufacturing clients, which, Bucher says, reflects the bank’s strong commercial legacy in the region. Still, Bucher notes that the company aims to build a diverse portfolio grounded in the middle market and corporate segments.
“This portfolio is still a startup, and certain large loans create early concentrations,” Bucher says. “However, these industries are a core competency of both our new team and our parent bank, which has a long-standing brand along the Gulf Coast.”
Throughout 2016, Whitney Equipment Finance continued to bring new products to market and win deals as a team, which grew to include notable hires such as Vice President Tim Logan, formerly with Caterpillar Financial, Vice President Jeremy Douberly, formerly of Regions Bank, and Vice President Dick Post, formerly of BBVA Compass Financial.
“We started the year with momentum and hit on our three initial business legs of marketing within the bank footprint, marketing to state and local governments in the Southeastern U.S. and building a national capital markets brand in the industry,” Bucher says.
After its first full year, Bucher says Whitney Equipment Finance is on target or ahead on all three distribution channels with good backlog. The company also recently reached the milestone of $600 million. Bucher says 2017 will be a year of implementing additional support functions ahead of the next stage of product growth.
In addition to growing the staff from 14 to 17 members, the team is expected to bring new ideas and equipment finance products to market to build a balanced and diversified portfolio.
“Our core mission is to build a middle market-focused product to support our parent bank and, as such, the mature product will be diverse, resembling its Gulf Coast market with a blend of our municipal and capital markets products to provide diversification outside of the footprint,” Bucher says.
Given the current economic environment and forecasts, Bucher says Whitney is cautiously optimistic about its position. With that said, Whitney and its peers are fighting the constant battle to maintain margins in a competitive equipment finance arena.
“I have always believed that our industry, financing CAPEX, is a reflection of the economy. With present levels of economic growth, we’re certainly seeing consistent competition for quality opportunities,” Bucher says. “You look at forecasts for GDP that have been reduced, spreads are as competitive as they’ve ever been, it affects all of us in the business of CAPEX funding — particularly for a bank-type equipment finance company where we market to long-term CAPEX budgeting.”
But if Whitney Equipment Finance’s place in the Monitor 100 this year is any indication, both Whitney and its competitors should have plenty to look forward to over the next year. “We’re an aggressive value-added and customer-focused industry. Our industry trade group is spectacular and is driven by leaders vested in our industry,” Bucher says. “It’s rewarding to launch so quickly into the Monitor 100 and to integrate our new company into the industry.”