John DeCero

John DeCero

OC finance executive John DeCero is shooting up the banking ladder in California after pulling off yet another unusual deal.

In the space of a dozen years, DeCero has gone from starting a bank with no assets—California Republic Bank—that grew to $2.1 billion, to overseeing $6 billion at Mechanics Bank and now with its pending acquisition of Rabobank N.A., being the chief executive of a financial institution with almost $20 billion in assets.

The latest move means he’s jumping from the 36th largest bank to the ninth biggest in California. By contrast, Irvine’s Pacific Premier Bancorp, the largest OC-based bank, ranks 14th in the state with $11.5 billion in assets.

“We’ll be statewide—a super-regional player,” said DeCero, who splits his time at the firm’s office in Irvine, where he also owns a home and at Mechanics Bank’s Walnut Creek headquarters.

“We’re aiming to be one of the premier larger community banks in the state of California,” he told the Business Journal.

“The deal’s exciting. The reason I took the job with Mechanics is because I knew they wanted to be much larger.”

It’s the latest deal for DeCero, 53, who started at a Citicorp training program after graduating from Augustana College in Illinois. He later led the middle-market banking team for Citi in Orange County before moving to Comerica Bank. Then he helped build Irvine-based Western Financial Bank, which was bought in 2006 for $3.9 billion by Wachovia.

In 2007, DeCero and Jon Wilcox founded Irvine-based California Republic Bank, which they sold in 2016 for $330 million to Mechanics Bank, which is 79% owned by the Ford Financial Fund, a Dallas based private equity firm.

In an unusual move, DeCero became chief executive of the buying bank.

On March 14, Mechanics Bank announced another unlikely move; saying it would acquire Rabobank, a bank twice its size, for $2.1 billion.

“There’s no one better than John DeCero” at retail banking, Carl B. Webb, Mechanics Bank chairman and co-managing partner of Ford Financial, told the Business Journal. “John has a lot of his career vested in Orange County. We are delighted to have that presence” in the area.

Strategic Change

Dutch-based Rabobank, one of the largest banks in Europe, arrived in California in 1992 and expanded through a series of acquisitions.

The bank’s worldwide strategy changed and a couple years ago. It began discussing with Mechanics a possible combination, DeCero said.

“They want to be one of the premier agriculture lenders in California,” DeCero said. “They’re divesting the banking side.”