When a bank gets ranked among the nation’s best by Forbes and racks up a five-star rating by Bauer Financial, you might expect it to be headquartered in a staunch tower overlooking Brickell or Coral Gables. And back in 2009, before it was taken over by federal regulators during the recession, Florida’s largest home-grown institution was in fact a Gables denizen.
But today’s BankUnited values practicalities over poshness. The 900-plus employees in its home office work in a nondescript Miami Lakes office park, far from the international glitter of tonier neighborhoods. And that includes its president, Rajinder P. Singh, who travels between Miami and New York.
The approach is working. BankUnited today manages more than $29 billion in assets, with almost $21 billion in deposits, according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. In its June 30 quarterly report, BankUnited reported $70 million in net income.
The Miami Herald recently spoke to Singh, who has helped power the bank’s turnaround.
Q: What is your background?
A: I was born in India where I went to college and graduated with a degree in chemical engineering. At 22, I bought a one-way ticket to the United States and got on the plane with $700 in my pocket.
Q: What was your first job in the U.S., and why did you leave it?
A: I worked as a chemical engineer and managed the midnight shift at RUCO Polymer Corp., a specialty chemical manufacturing company in Hicksville, New York. I left the company to attend graduate school.
Q: You went to Carnegie Mellon. What did you do when you graduated?
A: I was fortunate to have several job offers from a variety of industries, including chemical, pharmaceutical, automotive and financial services. As trite as it may sound, I ultimately chose to begin a career in banking because of the people I met, most of whom I am still close to today.
Q: You worked on some major deals before coming to BankUnited. Tell us about those.
A: I worked in FleetBoston Financial Corporation’s mergers and acquisitions group, where I worked on more than 20 transactions over nine years. Some of those included acquiring BankBoston as well as Quick & Reilly, which was at the time the nation’s third-largest discount brokerage firm and, ultimately, the sale of Fleet to Bank of America.
After working at Fleet, I went on to manage North Fork’s corporate strategy and development group where I worked on a number of deals, including North Fork’s sale to Capital One. Then I went on to lead the financial services group of WL Ross & Co., where I worked on the BankUnited deal.
Q: How and when did you come to BankUnited?
A: During the crisis of 2008, I was working at WL Ross looking to make strategic financial investments in the banking sector, which was under tremendous stress at the time. In early 2009, the assets and liabilities of BankUnited, FSB were being auctioned off by the FDIC. Together with a group of investors, including WL Ross, Blackstone, Carlyle and Centerbridge, we bid on the assets and liabilities and won. When the FDIC accepted the terms of our offer, we had less than 24 hours to assume ownership, which we did, and launched the new BankUnited. Overnight, I had become a founder and part of the executive management team of Florida’s largest bank.
Q: You were recently named president. How does that change your role?
A: I think because I have been here since the beginning, and have served alongside John [Kanas, BankUnited’s chairman] as COO until the beginning of this year, stepping into this role wasn’t a difficult transition. Certain aspects of my day-to-day have changed; I do spend more time engaging with customers, community organizations and investors and rely more on our trusted executive team to manage the business. I also recognize that our company has grown and matured over the past eight years and that it is stepping into a new phase in its history. I believe it is my role to set the cadence so that we maintain the same momentum as we continue to build a high-performing regional bank.
Q: What was the bleakest time in your professional life?
A: The 2008 financial crisis was a bleak time for the entire financial services industry. I still have old newspaper clippings headlining Lehman Brothers filing for bankruptcy because I knew we were all going to live through something painful yet historic.
Q: What have been the keys to success in your career?
A: I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that I have been very fortunate to have many doors open up to me throughout my career. However, I do believe that the key to my success has been choosing the right doors and working smart and hard once I’ve walked through them.
Q: BankUnited came through some rough times; you were part of the team that turned it around. Tell us how that happened.
A: When we won the bid in 2009 and became the management team for the new BankUnited, John and I launched a new strategy to build a premier commercial bank. The BankUnited name was still strong in Florida, so we decided to keep it. Everything else was replaced — management, infrastructure, policies and products. Our business plan, which included a disciplined credit culture and risk framework, was instituted. We knew we only had a short window of time in the beginning to turn the ship towards a new direction.
Today, much of what BankUnited has become is the fruit of our first days. In addition, we never steered away from our core competencies. As we started to grow, we expanded in areas where the management team had expertise and a strong track record. This discipline has kept us growing prudently while remaining a safe and sound institution.
Q: What are the differences between a community bank like BankUnited and a national or international commercial bank?
A: We view ourselves as a large community bank, or a regional bank. We believe the main difference between a bank like us and a national or international commercial bank is that we are a lot closer to our customers. We pride ourselves in being high-touch with our customers and the communities we serve. We also lack the bureaucracy of larger institutions and are more nimble in executing our business strategy.
Q: What is BankUnited’s strategy now?
A: We are building a high-performing, diversified, yet focused, commercial bank. Our priorities are safety and soundness, long-term growth and sustained profitability, and so our decisions, product offerings and culture are built with this in mind.
Q: You have operations in both New York and Miami. Why those two markets? Where else do you have offices, and where are you going next?
A: We chose two of the best markets that recovered quickly from the economic downturn. There are currently no plans to expand our branch network beyond these markets. In addition to New York and Florida, we do a fair amount of business through our national platforms that have offices all over the country. For example, our small business finance unit, which is the 16th largest SBA 7(a) lender in the United States by lending volume, does business in 49 states.
Q: How do you choose your markets?
A: We focus on markets where our business strategy would succeed. Generally, that equates to economically healthy and densely populated communities. As such, we thrive in large metropolitan areas such as New York and Miami.
Q: What are your banking specialties? And what services don’t you offer?
A: We offer a full range of traditional banking products and services to both our commercial and retail customers. We do not offer investment banking or wealth management services.
Q: Many banks have trimmed back on their physical branch locations. You have 106, with 90 in Florida and six in the New York area. What’s your thinking on that?
A: Like most banks, we are constantly analyzing our branch footprint and making sure we are in the right locations to meet the needs of our clients. We have closed a few branches recently, but remain 100 percent committed to the markets we are in and intend to grow business in each of these markets.
Q: BankUnited’s offices are located in Miami Lakes, in an industrial village — not the typical style for a bank. Why have you gone that route?
A: One of the early changes we made when we came to BankUnited was to move the headquarters from Coral Gables to Miami Lakes. In making this decision, we co-located many departments (including the management team) to a central corporate campus.
In the beginning, this proved beneficial for us — aside from real estate cost savings — as transfer of knowledge was easier and corporate culture was instantly defined as one of collaboration across the company. Eight years later, with additional amenities built along the way, we take pride in our campus and the community vibe that has been fostered.
Q: How many employees does BankUnited have in total, and how many in Miami-Dade? What is the total amount of assets?
A: BankUnited has 1,744 employees as of December 2016 with approximately 924 in Miami-Dade County.
Q: How do you keep employees engaged?
A: We have the finest people employed at BankUnited — sharp, motivated and with character — with relatively low turnover. I believe it’s because of a combination of two factors: a competitive compensation program and the confidence by each employee that he/she is a valuable contributor to our growth story.
Q: What challenges do you see for the U.S. economy in the year ahead?
A: In the foreseeable future, I don’t see blatant headwinds. In fact, I think everyone is waiting for what will be done with respect to infrastructure spending and tax reform, both of which could have positive implications for the economy.
Q: Do you think the recent pullback on Dodd-Frank regulations is positive, or is it going too far?
A: First, I should start by stating I’m not against regulation. I just believe in sensible regulation that promotes economic growth. There are components of Dodd-Frank that need to be reviewed as with any legislation. Hopefully the dialogue going on right now in Washington will result in favorable news not only for the industry, but for the economy.
Rajinder P. Singh
Job title: President and CEO.
Education: Bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology in New Delhi; MBA from Carnegie Mellon University.
Years at BankUnited: Eight.
Years in current post: Seven months (was BankUnited’s COO from October 2010 to December 2016).
Personal: Married with three children.
About BankUnited: Its corporate center is at 7815 NW 148th St., Miami Lakes.