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Jax Daily Record Tuesday, May 20, 201412:00 PM EST

Atlantic Coast revenue engines 'up and humming'

by: Mark Basch Contributing Writer

After a tumultuous 2013 in which shareholders rejected a merger agreement and the management and much of the board were overhauled, Atlantic Coast Financial Corp.’s annual shareholders meeting Monday was a much more jovial affair this year.

Shareholders had a reason to be in a good mood. The meeting at the Sheraton Jacksonville Hotel came just three weeks after Atlantic Coast Financial reported its first quarterly profit from operations since 2007.

New President and CEO John Stephens, who joined the company in September as part of the overhaul, said in an interview after the meeting that the small profit of 1 cent per share is only a start.

“We’ve told our people, it’s a small number and it’s a foundation,” he said.

Stephens said the parent company of Atlantic Coast Bank took a three-pronged approach to turning operations around. The first two were raising additional capital and cleaning up its balance sheet, which it accomplished before the end of 2013.

The third part was reigniting the bank’s “revenue engine,” or more aggressively pursuing business opportunities in the branch network, residential mortgage lending and commercial banking.

“We were a bit of a zombie the last two or three years,” Stephens said. “We now have the three revenue engines up and humming.”

While focusing on generating revenue, Atlantic Coast Financial also is looking at other ways to improve operations, including expense control.

As part of that, the company recently moved its small corporate office from its previous location in Deerwood Park to a 7,500-square-foot office in The Quadrant complex near the intersection of Butler Boulevard and Interstate 95.

Stephens said the move will save the company $60,000 in expenses this year and as an added bonus, it will be putting the bank’s sign on the building with high visibility.

Atlantic Coast Financial Chairman Kevin Champagne, who was one of the new directors elected to the board in the overhaul last year, praised Stephens’ efforts to turn the company around.

“His influence has been felt quite readily and quite markedly in the last few months,” he told shareholders.

Former Chairman Jay Sidhu, who remains on the board of directors, was more blunt about the change in leadership.

Sidhu, who led opposition to the merger last year and spearheaded the move to bring in new management, referred to the previous management and board as “self-serving and incompetent” in an interview after the meeting.

“You’ll see a night-and-day difference in the results” under the new management, he said.

Another new member of management, Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer Jay Lent, said the bank has a great opportunity now that it’s back on solid footing.

“There aren’t many community banks left in Jacksonville,” Lent said. “We view what we have as precious and special.”

Sidhu is satisfied with everything that has happened.

“I couldn’t be happier,” he said. “John and Jay have done a tremendous job and this is just the beginning,” he said.

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