Ameris Bancorp continues expansion

MOULTRIE, Ga. -- Moultrie-based Ameris Bancorp has acquired six federally-seized banks in the last 18 months as bank officials aggressively attempt to take advantage of what they say is a "once-in-a-lifetime" opportunity.

Most recently, Ameris took over control of the former Darby Bank & Trust in Vidalia and Tifton Banking Co. in Tifton after federal regulators seized the banks last week.

Dennis Zember Jr., executive vice president and chief financial officer, said Monday that the latest acquisitions will position the company to have a larger marketshare throughout southern Georgia and the Southeastern U.S., boosting its presence in the coastal areas by 40 percent.

"We've been aggressively working to reach out to new customers and welcome them in the Ameris family and expose them to our way of doing banking," Zember said. "These bank seizures and acquisitions are truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to branch out to customers that we might not ordinarily get a chance to reach.

"We pride ourselves on being a company that works hard to fill our balance sheets with as many relationships as we do deposits."

Ameris' stock prices were lifted on news of the acquisitions up to a high of $10.03 per share Friday. Ameris stock -- ABCB -- was settling back down to $9.87 late Monday afternoon. That was an increase of 52 cents per share, or 5.56 percent.

But Ameris hasn't been immune from the troubles facing banks nationwide. The bank has been propped up by $52 million in taxpayer funds through through the Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP -- the federal bank bailout plan that bought up to $250 billion in toxic assets from banks, mortgage companies and states across the country.

Zember was candid when asked why, in the frenzy to acquire new banks, Ameris hadn't found the capital to repay the federal government.

"It's not an awkward question. We owe $52 million to the government in TARP funds -- funds that we have the capital to pay back today if we had to," Zember said. "But, at this point those funds are invested in loans for our customers to create business, to provide housing and and to provide our customers with the resources to meet the needs that life requires.

"It wouldn't serve anyone -- our customers, our employees or the taxpayers -- to pay the money back prematurely only to have the economy slip again and we have to cut our services."

Zember said that the acquisitions were made possible because of smart fiscal thinking, which helped keep retail deposits high and capital plentiful -- but not without a price.

Bonuses and raises were cut long before it was the norm in the business to do so, and as recently as September the bank suspended payouts on dividends on its stock.

In a news release on Ameris' website, President and CEO Edwin W. Hortman Jr. announced the suspension of dividend payments as a measure taken to hasten the bank's "return to profitability."

"We understand that our stock dividend is important to many of our shareholders. However, we believe it is the right decision for all shareholders to avoid further dilution to tangible book value and earnings per share. We look forward to reinstating an appropriate cash dividend in the future as we work through this cycle and return to profitability."