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On eve of opening, Climate First Bank executives reflect on their journey

Brian Hartz



Climate First Bank founder, CEO and Chairman Ken LaRoe. Photo courtesy of MacKenzie LaRoe.

Official grand opening festivities won’t commence until July 12, but St. Petersburg-based Climate First Bank — which bills itself as a new kind of values-based bank that will specialize in loans for green energy projects — will be open for business starting June 1 at 5301 Central Ave.

On Friday, founder, CEO and Chairman Ken LaRoe received the bank’s charter, in person, from officials from Florida’s Office of Financial Regulation, who had traveled to St. Pete from Tallahassee for the occasion. He posed for photos with the officials and members of the Climate First Bank executive team, including Executive Vice President Valarie Nussbaum-Harris, who marveled at the fact that, because of the Covid-19 pandemic, Friday’s get-together marked the first time many of the nascent bank’s staff had actually met in person.

“We’ve done all of this on Zoom,” she said. “It’s incredible.”

Nussbaum-Harris came aboard in February as a contractor. A veteran of the Tampa Bay banking sector, she left Freedom Bank a few months after it was acquired by Stuart-based Seacoast Bank — a transition that left her unsure of her next career move. Speaking to the Catalyst, she said she had a lot of options to choose from but was drawn to Climate First Bank because of LaRoe’s reputation as an industry innovator and the fact that she’d never been part of a bank’s de novo process. Also, it seemed like a great opportunity to learn — a lot.

“I’ve started other businesses, but it’s my first time at something like this,” she said. “I’m a banker; I’m not an environmentalist. I have so much that I’m learning — I’m drinking from a fire hose.”

Climate First Bank founder, CEO and Chairman Ken LaRoe received the newly formed bank’s charter on Friday. Photo courtesy of MacKenzie LaRoe.

For LaRoe, Climate First Bank is the third bank he’s started, following on the heels of Florida Choice Bank and First Green Bank. Despite the challenges and obstacles thrust into his path by the pandemic, he said it was “way easier” to start Climate First Bank.

“My first one,” he told the Catalyst, “I got all the scrutiny because I was 40-something years old, this young guy who has never done a bank. And then the second one, we filed our application and then Washington Mutual failed the next week. It was the start of the financial meltdown, and the regulators did not want to give us the charter. But it got to the point where they just couldn’t figure out a way to turn us down. And we got the last charter granted in the state of Florida for nine years.”

LaRoe admits to harboring doubts as to whether he would be able to raise the $17 million in capital needed to obtain a charter. But he seems to have underestimated the enthusiasm for a locally owned, values- and mission-driven bank. “We’re massively oversubscribed,” he said. “Forty-two million dollars is our max and we’re at $43.7 million now. I’ve had people call me up at 10 o’clock at night wanting to invest. A guy wired $500,000 but didn’t send a subscription agreement. We didn’t know who he was. Who does that?”

Climate First Bank, according to LaRoe, already has $70 million in loans in its pipeline. Of that, somewhere between $5 million and $6 million has been approved, while $30 million is in underwriting. “The first couple of months will be a floodgate [opening], which will be fantastic,” he said, “because that’s where the earnings come from.”

In addition to loans for green-energy projects, Climate First Bank will offer a wide variety of standard banking products, including checking and savings accounts and eventually mortgages. “I believe mortgages should be a foundation of a community bank’s offerings,” LaRoe said, “because it’s taking care of the community at its core.”

There are still a few bugs to be worked out, LaRoe said, which is why the bank is going the “soft opening” route next week and leading up to July 12, which will kick off three days of celebrations that will include food trucks and activities for kids.

For example, the online portal for the solar energy lending program is not yet active, and LaRoe would like to see more loans and deposits on the books, with a goal of being at $20 million in assets by mid-July.

“If I put that prediction out there,” he joked, “I’ll have to tell the team they have to do it. But the one consistency in my life is that every time I predict an economic outcome, I’m always wrong. So I hate to predict anything. I’ve always felt like I just had to be really vigilant all the time … and have really diligent underwriting, which is what we’ve always done.”

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