The CEO of one of America's top performing banks said he sees great potential in Georgia.
George Gleason, who is also chairman of Bank of the Ozarks, made a visit recently to north Georgia along with the bank's board of directors.
Bank of the Ozarks, headquartered in Little Rock, Ark., has 113 offices in seven states including Arkansas, Alabama, Florida, North and South Carolina and Texas.
In April, it was named the top performing bank in the nation with assets of more than $3 billion by the ABA Banking Journal, the flagship monthly magazine of the American Bankers Association.
Bank of the Ozarks obtained Chestatee State Bank, which had two locations in Dawson County and one in Forsyth County, in December 2010.
Gleason said Chestatee State was one of seven FDIC-seized banking sites obtained by Bank of the Ozarks over the past 15 months. Six of those have locations in Georgia.
In total, the bank has 30 locations with about 300 employees in the state.
"We hope to have two to three times as many offices in Georgia over the next few years," he said, noting that the state has traditionally been real estate-driven in regards to banking.
"There are challenges, but the real estate business here is still good."
And that's a good fit for Bank of the Ozarks, one of whose main strengths is in real estate lending, Gleason said.
"We may be the largest bank in the country that came through the real estate market crash unscathed," he said. "Now everyone got a few bumps and scratches, but we were able to make it basically unharmed."
Gleason said the transition from Chestatee State has gone well and he hopes to add at least one more site in Forsyth County over the next few years.
"We've been received very well and have kept the majority of those customers," he said. "We're also seeing new business."
In general, Gleason said the banking industry in Georgia and the nation is currently "a challenging climate."
"The economy is modestly better but not significantly better," he said. "I think the industry as a whole is facing a challenging road ahead with the host of new regulations coming down from the federal government."
But he believes Bank of the Ozarks' track record is proof it will be able to weather any challenge.
"In 32 years, we've never had a quarter that we weren't profitable," he said, something he attributed to "conservative credit principals" that allow the bank to maintain high levels of capital to create new acquisitions and loans.
As far as services to customers, Gleason said Bank of the Ozarks is a full-service institution providing a full line of deposit and lending products.
He said it also has a "strong mortgage presence in Arkansas" and a "very, very strong trust and wealth management unit," both of which will be built in this state over time.
Gleason said he believes the economy in Georgia will stabilize sooner rather than later.
"Georgia has a strong $450 billion-a-year-economy. I think it will surprise everybody how quickly it rebounds," he said. "Georgia has so many positive things going for it."