J. Clarence Jameson III swore he would never start another community bank after he sold his second in May 1995 for a handsome profit.
His promise didn't last long. Three months later, he was hustling to raise money from friends and business associates for a third bank. "It was too good a transaction" to pass up, Jameson said.
Two-and-a-half months ago, AmericasBank opened on East Lombard Street with about $10 million in assets, and with Jameson, a 66-year-old accountant, as its chairman.
AmericasBank is part of a small bank revival. It is one among hundreds of newly chartered community banks and thrifts popping up nationwide. Last year alone, 188 banks were chartered across the country, more than triple the number started five years ago.
Baltimore is experiencing a similar boom.
Fourteen months ago, County National Bank opened in Glen Burnie. It was followed by AmericasBank, which opened last December. And three other groups are organizing banks and thrifts in Pikesville, Hunt Valley and Bethesda.
"You've got start-ups coming out of the ground," said Lewis Sosnowik, a bank securities analyst at Bethesda-based Koonce Securities Inc.
And more could be in the offing.
"We are working with two groups that are considering starting new institutions in Maryland," said Frank Bonaventure, head of the bank regulatory group at the law firm of Ober, Kaler, Grimes & Shriver.
Why are start-ups suddenly hot?
Two reasons: the strong economy and the rapid pace of mergers, which has swallowed thousands of banks, both large and small.
During the past 10 years, an average of 509 banks a year have been acquired, and the pace has picked up. Maryland hasn't escaped the trend. Since 1990, 35 banks and thrifts have been acquired, according to SNL Securities L.C., a Charlottesville, Va.-based research and publishing company.
The list of vanishing banks and thrifts in Baltimore is long: Maryland National Corp., Baltimore Bancorp, Loyola Capital Corp., American National Bancorp, Fairfax Savings Bank and Citizens Bancorp of Laurel.
"Many of the markets in the country are losing their only community banks," said David Baris, general counsel to the Bank Creation Group, a Bethesda-based organization that helps start new banks throughout the country. "It is happening nationwide. It [consolidation] creates an opportunity for the formation of community banks."
That's why Jameson started AmericasBank, to fill what he sees as a void created by large banks gobbling up smaller ones. NationsBank, Crestar Bank and First Union have muscled in to Baltimore with acquisitions, and they are among a cadre of big banks that dominate the market.
Jameson is an old hand at community banking. He started Towson-based Bank of Maryland in 1985, raising more than $30 million over several years. But he resigned five years later when losses mounted because of problem real estate loans.
In 1994, he started MarylandsBank Corp., only to sell out for a profit about a year later to shipping executive Edwin F. Hale Sr., who revamped the company and renamed it First Mariner Bank.
AmericasBank's game plan is to slip between the giants' legs and steal disgruntled customers with better service and perhaps better rates. It is the same strategy Hale has used to quickly build First Mariner to $230.4 million in assets and 16 branches in just over 2 1/2 years.
The start-ups boast quick decision making, a friendly touch and ready access to the president.
"These larger banks are not capable of rendering the level of service," said Leonard L. Abel, chairman of Eagle Bancorp, the parent of Bethesda-based Eagle Bank, which plans to open next June.
County National is proof of how quickly a start-up can excel.
In the 14 months since it opened, its assets have more than doubled to about $40 million, more than 3,000 accounts have been opened, and it is on pace to make a profit of $150,000 by the end of the year, said Jan. W. Clark, County National's president and chief executive.
Such quick profits are unusual. It often takes start-ups three years to make money.
County National's forte is lending to small businesses. An electrical contractor might need a loan to buy wire, a printing company might need a new printer, and a trash hauler might need a new compactor.
It is also building a consumer business, and it has benefited from mergers.
Elmer Freeland, a retiree, moved his account to County National when Signet Bank was acquired by Charlotte, N.C.-based First Union last July. "They took over three banks around our neighborhood and closed every one of them," he said.
David L. Hovatter, president of Singleton Funeral Home, had accounts of more than $500,000 at Maryland National Bank, where he banked for 25 years.
But Maryland National was acquired by NationsBank, and it wasn't interested in Singleton, Hovatter said. "We were small potatoes and they really didn't want to deal with us," he said.