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Jax Daily Record Thursday, Oct. 24, 201905:20 AM EST

Ameris Bank moves headquarters, top executives to Atlanta

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The bank will continue to have a significant Southbank presence at Riverplace Tower, where it is installing new signs atop building.
by: Mark Basch Contributing Writer

When Ameris Bancorp filed a proxy statement in February for its proposed acquisition of Fidelity Southern Corp., the company stated its holding company would be headquartered in Jacksonville after the merger.

However, when Ameris last week announced its first quarterly earnings report since completing the merger, the company said it moved the headquarters to Fidelity Southern’s home in Atlanta.

Ameris had been officially headquartered in Moultrie, Georgia, but in 2015 it moved its executive offices to the Riverplace Tower on Jacksonville’s Southbank.

When the Fidelity Southern deal was announced, the plan was for the company’s Ameris Bank subsidiary to move its headquarters from Moultrie to Atlanta, but the parent Ameris Bancorp would be based in Jacksonville.

However, plans changed when the merger closed July 1 and Ameris CEO Dennis Zember unexpectedly resigned. Fidelity Southern President Palmer Proctor was appointed to succeed him.

“With Dennis’ departure, our new CEO is in Atlanta,” Chief Financial Officer Nicole Stokes said Friday.

Stokes relocated to Atlanta and now most of the company’s top management is there, so the corporate headquarters formally was moved Oct. 1.

Other than the move of top executives, Ameris will continue to have a significant presence at Riverplace Tower, where the company is putting new signage with a new logo atop the 28-story building, Stokes said.

“We still have the operations we had there before,” she said.

During the company’s quarterly conference call with analysts Friday, Stokes said she just closed on a home in Atlanta.

“I’m learning all about what traffic really means,” she said. “But honestly and seriously, we’re all committed to Ameris and what the future holds for us.”

Ameris reported third-quarter earnings of 98 cents a share, up from 91 cents a year ago and 3 cents better than the consensus forecast of analysts, according to Zacks Investment Research.

During the conference call, Proctor said the integration of Fidelity Southern’s operations into Ameris is going well.

“We’ve actually had better than expected results so far based on our execution and accelerated execution of some of the cost-save strategies,” he said.

Proctor said the two banks had a combined 199 branches in Florida, Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina when the merger agreement was reached, but it has closed 27 offices.

“We’ve done this very strategically and with very little attrition in terms of our core funding,” he said, referring to loss of customer deposits.

Ameris had 17 branches and Fidelity Bank had six in the Jacksonville market as of June 30, according to Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. data.

Ameris is planning to lift its new sign by helicopter atop Riverplace Tower on Nov. 3. The sign integrates Fidelity Bank’s lion logo into the Ameris name.

The logo has “been very well received, and we remain deliberate in terms of our efforts to drive that brand in all of our markets,” Proctor said.

Johnson & Johnson contact lens sales growing in U.S.

Johnson & Johnson Vision reported strong third-quarter revenue, helped by sales of its contact lenses.

The Jacksonville-based subsidiary of the health products giant said last week total sales rose 5.4% to $1.19 billion, with contact lens sales rising 7% to $893 million.

The growth in contact lenses was helped by increased sales in Japan ahead of a consumption tax increase, Johnson & Johnson officials said. However, U.S. contact lens sales grew by 6.2%.

“Vision had a good quarter. I would say contact lenses in particular had a very healthy quarter,” said Ashley McEvoy, chairman of Johnson & Johnson’s medical devices business, in the company’s conference call.

The vision care division expanded beyond contact lenses with acquisitions of other eye health businesses two years ago.

McEvoy said the eye care surgical products business is facing challenging markets but wants to increase sales by “accelerating some innovations.”

She also is “bullish on the innovation agenda” for its Acuvue contact lens business. 

McEvoy cited a new contact lens introduced in March with technology that adapts to changing light and said more new products are coming.

“We’re going to have another novel innovation in vision, related to the first-ever drug-eluting contact lens for allergy,” she said.

Mantle Ridge hedge fund sheds CSX shares

The hedge fund that backed a management shake-up at CSX Corp. in early 2017 sharply reduced its ownership in the Jacksonville-based railroad company.

Mantle Ridge sold and distributed about 38 million CSX shares, according to a Securities and Exchange Commission filing Monday.

CSX said in an SEC filing last Thursday it had agreed to repurchase 4.7 million shares from Mantle Ridge.

The latest sales left Mantle Ridge with just 364,851 shares of CSX. However, Mantle Ridge CEO Paul Hilal, who remains vice chairman of CSX’s board, has 3.45 million shares, or 0.4% of all CSX outstanding stock.

Hilal partnered with the late Hunter Harrison to get Harrison installed as chief executive officer of CSX in March 2017. Hilal joined the board of directors as part of a sweeping management overhaul that followed Harrison’s appointment.

Analyst downgrades Rayonier AM

Rayonier Advanced Materials Inc.’s stock has been depressed most of this year as the Jacksonville-based maker of cellulose specialties products reported losses in the first and second quarters.

One analyst who had been hoping for a recovery downgraded the stock last week.

“Rayonier AM’s share price has remained low despite many recent positive catalysts,” Berenberg Capital Markets analyst Paretosh Misra said in a research note as he downgraded the stock from “buy” to “hold.”

Misra lowered his price target for the stock from $15 to $5, with the stock trading at $4.70 at the time of his report.

“We see risk that investors remain sidelined on the stock until consensus estimates bottom and 2020-21 cellulose specialties (CS) pricing outlook becomes more clear,” he said.

The positive catalysts include the renegotiation of debt agreements and a recent price hike for CS products.

“However, shares are still significantly below the 2019 peak as investor sentiment on many of the commodity markets (where Rayonier AM participates) remains poor,” Misra said.

The previous $15 price target “now becomes the bull-case valuation,” he said.

“We believe investors need to see progress on three key issues to potentially become more bullish: 1) reduction in leverage, through cost cuts and sale of more non-core assets; 2) recovery in commodity prices; and 3) a few good quarters of strong operational performance.”

Analyst: Coach hurt by used handbag market

Retailers are facing many challenges these days but fashion accessories company Coach might be dealing with a unique problem: growth of the used handbag market.

UBS analyst Jay Sole last week downgraded Coach’s parent company, Tapestry Inc., from “buy” to “neutral” in part because of that issue.

“Consumers increasingly have the option to purchase a new Coach bag for $400 or a used European luxury brand item for the same price,” Sole said in a research note. 

“We think many shoppers are opting for the latter choice,” he said.

Tapestry is dealing with bigger problems than that. Its Kate Spade brand is experiencing declines in comparable-store sales, or sales open at stores for more than one year.

“Tapestry’s negative high-teens first-quarter Kate Spade comp guidance caused us to think the Kate Spade turnaround will likely take years,” he said.

All of Coach’s North American distribution is handled by its 850,000-square-foot facility at the Jacksonville International Tradeport in North Jacksonville.

Sole is optimistic that new Tapestry CEO Jide Zeitlin, appointed last month, will improve North American sales for Coach.

“Tapestry’s actions are helping Coach take back mindshare and create more favorable impressions among consumers. These are the type of leading indicators which often translate into sales growth,” he said.

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