Continental National, first bank to be owned by Cuban Americans, has been acquired

Miami-based Continental National Bank, the first financial institution to be owned by Cuban Americans, has been acquired by a Chicago-area banking group.

Continental National and Elk Grove, Illinois-based First American Bank announced in a release Thursday that the sale was designed to grow First American’s Miami-Dade footprint, with a special focus on the large Hispanic market here. A sale price was not announced.

Continental National was founded in 1974 by Carlos Dascal, then a 42-year-old Cuban immigrant who’d arrived from Havana in 1961 virtually penniless. He first operated the bank out of two trailers in Little Havana. The firm, with the help of co-founder Bernardo Benes, grew to approximately $490 million in assets and six branches.

In 2017, Continental entered into a consent decree with the federal government requiring it to strengthen its anti-money-laundering safeguards. First American CEO Thomas Wells said in an interview it is his understanding that Continental has now substantially met the obligations of the decree, though the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency has not terminated it.

With the acquisition, all Continental assets will rebrand under First American, and Jacqueline Dascal Chariff will step down as chairwoman. Wells said there are likely to be some layoffs for Continental positions already covered by First American staffers.

“This transaction will allow us to maintain our business culture, while still emphasizing our ability to seek practical solutions for our community and our customers’ needs,” Dascal Chariff said in a statement “This has been at the core of what the Continental Bank legacy has been for over 40 years.”

First American purchased Bank of Coral Gables in 2014 as part of a push to expand into Miami-Dade, as growth in the Midwest stalled.. The Continental acquisition is designed to further that goal, Wells said.

“You’ve got population growth, whereas in Illinois, we’ve got population decline,” Wells said. He also cited a stable tax base and fiscally sound local governments in the Miami area.

For Miami-Dade, “it all leads to an expanding market,” he said.