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Focus on clean energy powers Belleair Bluffs lender

Margie Manning

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Photo by American Public Power Association on Unsplash

Seminole Financial Services, already one of the largest lenders in the United States for renewable energy projects, aims for an even larger footprint in the sector.

Bob Banks

The company, based in Belleair Bluffs, likely will bolster its current activities, said Bob Banks, founder and chairman.

Since 2009, Seminole has committed more than $1.6 billion in financing for more than 250 solar and wind installations throughout the continental U.S. and Hawaii, the equivalent of more than 900 megawatts in installed capacity. That’s enough to power about 172,000 homes, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.

“We’re a small privately held company that competes with major financial institutions throughout the country. People may drive by the office and don’t know what we do, but in the markets we’re in we’re very competitive with companies much larger than us that are household names,” Banks said.

The company doesn’t release revenue, but it’s been profitable all 10 years of its existence.

Banks reflected on the growth of the 10-year-old company and looked ahead to what’s next in an interview with St. Pete Catalyst, just days after announcing leadership changes.

Banks is stepping away from his role as CEO. Two Seminole Financial veterans, Chris Diaz and Tim Fetter, were promoted to co-CEOs. Ron Campbell was promoted to chief operations officer and Kris Dunlop was promoted to chief financial officer.

The moves allow Banks, who remains the privately owned company’s controlling shareholder, to focus on strategic planning and other activities that don’t require day-to-day involvement, he said.

“We will be more active in more facets of renewable energy, more heavily involved in syndication of tax credits and more active in permanent lending to complement the construction lending we are doing,” Banks said.

Renewable energy lending makes up about 75 percent of the company’s business. The remaining 25 percent comes from providing preferred equity for multi-family real estate and student housing transactions.

“I think those percentages will remain the same, but volumes will increase substantially,” Banks said.

Meteoric growth

Seminole Financial Services is the operating entity for the six firms that make up The Seminole Companies, founded by Banks in December 2008. He had retired a few years earlier, after selling the Midland Companies, a Clearwater company licensed to make loans on behalf of mortgage giant Fannie Mae.

Seminole was launched in the midst of the financial crisis. The initial focus was on real estate, as the company took over nonperforming and underperforming projects.

“The meteoric growth came from renewable energy,” Banks said.

Banks learned about the sector from Chris Diaz, who had just left Credit Suisse.

“He asked what I thought about renewable energy. I didn’t even know what it was, but after talking to him I saw it could be a potential niche product for us so I decided to try a couple of deals,” Banks said. “We did a couple of deals in 2009. Chris came on full time in 2010 and we have become a very big player in renewable energy.”

There was little competition initially, but that’s changed. Major banks have made public commitments to invest in clean technologies, with many saying they will double their investments between 2018 and 2030, according to a survey last year by the American Council on Renewable Energy.

“We have a lot of competition now, but we have established ourselves as one of the dominant players,” Banks said.

The sector is growing as the energy business moves away from fossil fuels and burning coal to  renewable sources, such as wind or solar, which are clean and popular, Banks said.

“In Europe, most countries have a high percentage of electricity in renewable energy. The trend caught on in the U.S. a little later, but now it’s gaining momentum,” he said.

The cost of solar panels is dropping and a lot of states have adopted energy standards with goals that call for a high percentage of power coming from renewable sources.

Seminole Financial does most of its business in 12 states that are aggressively moving into renewable energy. Florida is not one of them.

“In Florida, we’ve only done three or four deals out of hundreds of deals. You would think because there’s so much sun it would be very active. Florida has not been as aggressive as others,” Banks said. “I think that Florida is missing the boat, and from a personal standpoint I would like to do more business here. But we go where the business is.”

New leadership

Seminole Financial is relatively small, with 21 employees, and the new co-CEOs handle different tasks.

“Chris is the outside guy who brings in the business and is on the road. Tim is more of an inside guy and manages the underwriting and administration and management of the existing assets,” Banks said. “They were responsible for growth and work closely together. They can complement each other and continue to do what they do best on a day to day basis.”

Tim Fetter

Chris Diaz

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Diaz previously was principal/executive vice president-business development at Seminole Financial, and will maintain those responsibilities in addition to his new role. Since joining the company in 2010, he has originated over $1.2 billion in financing  He’s a member of the board of directors of the Solar Energy Industry Association, a board member of the Solar Energy Trade Show Board of Managers, and vice president of the Distributed Wind Energy Association.

Fetter is the former principal/executive vice president-credit and risk management at Seminole, and like Diaz, he also will maintain those responsibilities in addition to his new role. He’s been at Seminole since it was launched. He previously worked at MMA Financial, Raymond James Financial and Raymond James Bank.

Ron Campbell

Campbell was principal/chief financial officer at Seminole. In his new role as chief operating officer, Campbell will focus heavily on the company’s growing number of financial partners. Before he joined the company in 2009, he was CFO for the Detroit Pistons Basketball Company and Palace Sports & Entertainment. He spent a decade as president and NHL alternate governor for the Tampa Bay Lightning Hockey Club. He serves on the Tampa Bay Sports Commission Board of Directors, Town of Belleair Police Officers’ Pension Board and the Town of Belleair Infrastructure Board. In February, he was appointed to the board of directors of Freedom Bank in St. Petersburg.

Kris Dunlop

Dunlop previously was senior vice president/controller at Seminole and worked closely with Campbell, Banks said. Dunlop joined the company in 2013, and as the controller for The Seminole Companies, he has oversight of all of the accounting, treasury and information technology functions as well as completion of various compliance reports including corporate financial audits and tax returns.

Diaz, Fetter and Campbell also are corporate shareholders.

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