The Orange County banking sector is about to get even more intense.

Fifth Third Bancorp (Nasdaq: FITB), the country’s 13th-largest bank by assets, is opening an office in the Irvine area.

“This is a fantastic market,” Chief Executive Greg D. Carmichael told the Business Journal in an interview last week.

“Our intent here is to build a very strong middle-market commercial bank.”

Cincinnati-based Fifth Third Bank, which has traditionally focused on the Midwest, is testing the Southern California waters. In December, it hired well-known OC banker Joe Yurosek as its California market president. He was previously regional market president at Comerica Bank, where he worked for 21 years.

“Orange County is so deep with opportunities,” Yurosek said while sitting at Carmichael’s side at The Ranch Restaurant & Saloon in Anaheim. “We want to be a super-easy bank to do business with.”

Local Hiring

The bank traces its history to 1858 as Bank of the Ohio Valley, which was purchased in 1871 by Third National Bank. In 1908, the bank merged with Fifth National Bank, eventually becoming known as Fifth Third Bank.

It plans to open an OC office soon with 11 bankers, and a similar office in Los Angeles. Carmichael said it’s looking for local talent. The chief executive praised Yurosek as “the best banker” to build its California presence.

“We won’t parachute people into a market. We hire people who have a legacy of success and have a strong portfolio.”

Fifth Third’s move underscores a surge of banking expansion and hiring in Orange County.

City National Bank Chief Executive Russell Goldsmith told the Business Journal last month that the bank is “looking in big, bold letters” for financial executives. Irvine-based Opus Bank has hired two senior executives this year from City National.

Santa Rosa-based Poppy Bank moved to expand here by buying Costa Mesa-based Blue Gate Bank, where it has an investment. Irvine-based Pacific Premier Bancorp (Nasdaq: PPBI) bought neighbor Plaza Bancorp in November and in February announced it will acquire Los Angeles-based Grandpoint Capital Inc.

Longtime local banker Bala Balkrishna opened Infinity Bank in February in Santa Ana, and banking consultant Ed Carpenter said he’s advising another bank scheduled to open.

Morgan McGrath, JPMorgan Chase & Co.’s head of international banking told the Business Journal in March that OC is “increasingly important” to the bank and that “we’re excited about what’s ahead.”

Fifth Third will have some catching up to do to match local operations of the country’s biggest banks. For example, Bank of America Corp. employs 4,800 in the county, and Wells Fargo has another 3,565.

Shopping?

An acquisition would be a quick way for Fifth Third, which has $142 billion in assets, to boost its OC presence.

Last month it announced it will spend $4.7 billion to buy MB Financial Inc., making Fifth Third the second-largest bank in Chicago behind JPMorgan.

Carmichael, who’s been chief executive since 2015, downplayed the possibility of buying a Southern California bank, saying he’ll be busy with MB Financial’s regulatory approval and merger.

“It usually takes two years until you have a discussion about other opportunities,” he said. “Those days when you could do two or three a year are way behind us.”

C&I Lending

The local Fifth Third office will focus on commercial and industrial lending, known as C&I, targeting areas such as healthcare, aerospace and distributors. It will focus on companies with less than $500 million, which large banks often ignore, Carmichael said.

“When you think of the concentration of C&I companies, this area is just booming,” Carmichael said. “We’re not going to be everything to everybody. We’re focused on the sweet spot of C&I.”

It will also get involved in the community, particularly in philanthropic endeavors, Yurosek said.

Fifth Third may also scour the county for fintech investments. Carmichael said he’s aware Irvine-based Acorns Grows Inc. recently received an “anchor investment” from Blackrock Inc., one of the world’s largest wealth managers.

Carmichael, who has a degree in computer science from the University of Dayton and was previously chief information officer at the bank, said he understands technology “very well.” He pointed out that Fifth Third was one of the original investors in hot Atlanta-based fintech GreenSky LLC, which has a valuation approaching $5 billion.

“We’re constantly looking at fintech players. This is a great opportunity on the West Coast.”