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Alerus Financial Corporation (NASDAQ:ALRS) Q4 2023 Earnings Call Transcript

Alerus Financial Corporation (NASDAQ:ALRS) Q4 2023 Earnings Call Transcript January 25, 2024

Alerus Financial Corporation isn't one of the 30 most popular stocks among hedge funds at the end of the third quarter (see the details here).

Operator: Good morning, afternoon, evening. And welcome to the Alerus Financial Corporation Earnings Conference Call. All participants will be in listen-only mode. [Operator Instructions] After today’s presentation, there will be an opportunity to ask questions. Please note this event is being recorded. This call may include forward-looking statements and the company’s actual results may differ materially from those indicated in any forward-looking statements. Important factors that could cause actual results to differ materially from those indicated in the forward-looking statements are listed in the earnings release and the company’s SEC filings. I would now like to turn the conference over to Alerus Financial Corporation President and CEO, Katie Lorenson. Please go ahead.

Katie Lorenson: Thank you. Thank you, Harry, and thank you to everyone joining our call today. We appreciate your interest and your investment in Alerus. Joining me today is Alerus’ CFO, Al Villalon, who will discuss our financial performance and results for the quarter. Also on the call is Karin Taylor, our Chief Risk Management Officer; and Jim Collins, our Chief Banking and Revenue Officer. This morning, I will provide some commentary on an excellent quarter of execution in key areas of the company. We’ve been working with incredible urgency over the past two years to strategically transform the Commercial Wealth Bank. We began with assembling a new executive leadership team in addition to putting the right people in the right seats across the company.

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Over the past -- course of the past 18 months, we have completed five restructurings and added over 120 new team members of the company, while managing to reduce overall headcount to nearly 10%. The resulting transformation of our Commercial Wealth Bank is evident with exceptional deposit growth supporting high quality loan growth during the quarter. In addition, the well-executed balance sheet repositioning in December provided additional flexibility and continued momentum to improve financial performance heading into 2024 and beyond. We believe this quarter marks a notable milestone in turning the corner on our return to top-tier financial performance with improving PPNR. The ongoing execution of our One Alerus strategy resulted in continued key talent wins, including adding four commercial bankers in Arizona, as well as success in taking market share of well-established commercial businesses in the form of full banking relationships with lending and treasury management throughout all of our footprint.

In addition, we decreased leverage on the balance sheet and paid down FHLB advances, our highest cost source of funding, as we have yet to tap into any brokered CDs or brokered funds markets. We finished the year with the loan-to-deposit ratio ticking down to 89%. The culmination of the efforts of our team members and our Board’s strategic prioritization of bringing long-term value to our shareholders, our clients and communities led to net interest margin expansion in the quarter. Net interest margin expansion is another milestone and a critical turning point in our return to top-tier performance. Our uniquely diversified revenue mix is a differentiator in the industry with a robust contribution of 54% of total revenue. During the quarter, we restructured and integrated the standalone Mortgage division into our Private Wealth Banking franchise and we are already seeing the benefits of the synergies of these teams and backrooms working together to serve clients throughout the Twin Cities, Arizona and North Dakota.

Outside of the Mortgage business, the majority of our diversified revenue mix are approximately 90% of our fee income, is highly annuitized, recurring and non-cyclical revenue with minimal capital allocation or balance sheet risk. Alerus’ top 25-ranked National Retirement Services business delivers most of the fee income. The business ended the year with record level of sales and new revenue, and the Retirement business remains highly valuable and we are committed to extracting this embedded value by achieving net revenue growth in our scaled and highly profitable product lines in this business. The synergies between the Commercial Wealth Bank and the Retirement remain as a source of deposits, as well as Wealth Management assets. In the fourth quarter, we commenced a nationwide search for a Chief Retirement Services Officer and we are incredibly proud of the caliber of deeply experienced professionals we are attracting to this organization.

Shifting over to the next highest contributor to our 54% of fee income is our Wealth Management business. Again, most of our Wealth Management business is full relationship advice-based business, less than 10% of our business is transaction or brokerage. The milestone I would highlight for Wealth Management this quarter is another great One Alerus’ success, this one in our Arizona market in partnerships between the commercial teams and the Wealth advisors in capturing business owner liquidity opportunities. Moving over to provision expense in the quarter, it was driven by loan growth as credit quality remains strong with low levels of past dues and non-performing loans. Alerus experienced another quarter of net recoveries, loan losses remains robust at 1.3% of total loans.

We remain highly selective in our lending and are committed to franchise building full banking relationships. Capital levels also remain robust with TCE of 7.96% and CET1 of 11.81%. During the quarter, we grew tangible book value 8% and returned $5.8 million to shareholders through dividends and share repurchases. This was a breakout quarter for the team and the company after implementing significant change throughout the banking division. We are building a stronger than ever franchise with the best in the business talent. We are prudently adding new client relationships and improving profitability through infrastructure rightsizing and optimization. Each move is purposeful and strategic in positioning Alerus to bring expertise to our clients in a fast, frictionless and highly responsive manner, while delivering value which we believe will directly translate into value creation for our shareholders.

With that, I will turn it over to Al to talk about the financial performance for the quarter.

Al Villalon: Thanks, Katie. I’ll start my commentary on page 14 of our investor deck that is posted in the investor relations part of our website. Let’s start on our key revenue drivers. On a reported basis, net interest income increased 5.7% on a linked-quarter basis. The increase was driven primarily by strong organic loan and deposit growth. Net interest income represented 45.9% of revenues when excluding the loss on investment securities. Switching to fee income, non-interest income excluding the loss on investment securities decreased 10.5% on a linked-quarter basis, primarily driven by the gain recognized by the divestiture of the ESOP trustee business being recognized in the prior quarter. Excluding the ESOP Trustee gain, non-interest income was relatively stable on a linked-quarter basis.

A business owner signing a contract in the bank office.
A business owner signing a contract in the bank office.

I’ll go into detail about each of our fee income segments in later slides. Turning to page 15, net interest income was $21.6 million in the fourth quarter. Net interest margin was 2.37%, an increase of 10 basis points from the prior quarter. While some of our index liabilities repriced in October due to the last Fed hike in July, we saw the lowest quarterly increased interest expense. During the quarter, we had gradual net interest margin improvement as our balance sheet continues to remix towards higher yielding assets and strong deposit -- strong organic deposit growth helped lower borrowings. Based on the recent Fed commentary on a potential pause, we do expect our net interest margin to improve even without any rate cuts. Should Fed cut rates later in the year, we anticipate our net interest margin to continue to improve faster.

Any increase in funding costs will be related to competition and a shift from non-interest-bearing to interest-bearing. Let’s turn to page 16 to talk about our loan portfolio. Total loans grew 5.7% from the prior quarter, driven by organic growth in commercial real estate, C&I and residential real estate. Excluding the impact of PPE, this was one of the highest organic loan growth that we have experienced. Growth across the Board was driven by newly onboarded talent and legacy producers as well. We continue to track highly quality -- high quality talent in our growth markets and have been able to drive growth quickly for Alerus. For 2024, we continue to expect to see modest loan growth. Turning to page 17, on a period-ending basis, our deposits increased 7.8% from the prior quarter.

Just like loans, this was one of the highest organic deposit growth for Alerus. Non-interest-bearing deposits balances increased 1.4% and represented 24% of total deposits. Client retention remains very high and we continue to track new clients, especially in the mid-market commercial space. For 2024, we expect deposit levels to remain stable. We also expect the usual seasonality in deposits with public fund outflows occurring in the second and third quarters. Turning to page 18, you can see a further breakdown of our strong deposit base. Our synergistic deposits, those funds sourced from our Wealth and Retirement businesses, grew 23% over the prior year and 11.5% from the prior quarter. The continued growth in synergistic deposits was driven mainly by strong organic client growth within our Retirement and Wealth segments.

Synergistic deposits sourced from our Retirement and Wealth businesses now account for over 27% of our deposit base. As you can see here, continued growth in our synergistic deposits shows the strength of our unique and differentiated business model. Turning to page 19, you’ll see details about our investment portfolio. Currently, almost 62% of our securities are available for sale versus approximately 38% in health and maturity. Excluding the lost trade, we did see improvement in unrealized losses as the bond markets rallied given recent Fed commentary. We continue to remix the balance sheet towards commercial lending relationships that will add higher yielding loans and treasury management relationships. On page 20, I’ll start talking about our fee income businesses.

On this page, I’ll provide some highlights on our Retirement business. Excluding the impact of the ESOP Trust Services gain and non-recurring ESOP Trustee revenues in the prior quarter, revenues increased 1.6%. End of quarter assets under management and administration increased 6.2%, mainly due to improved equity and bond markets. Participants within Retirement have grown 4.4% over the prior year. For the first quarter of 2024, excluding any market impact, we expect fee income for our Retirement business to be stable. Turning to page 21, you can see highlights for our Wealth Management business. On a linked-quarter basis, revenues increased 12.7%, while end of quarter assets under management increased 7.9%, again due to improved equity and bond markets.

Over 83% of revenues in this segment are asset-based fees. For the first quarter, excluding any market impact, we do expect our fee income from our Wealth business to be up slightly. Turning to page 22, I’ll talk about our Mortgage business. Mortgage revenues decreased 49% from the prior quarter as originations decreased 41%. We saw our usual seasonal decline in Mortgage production, given that most of our production comes from the Twin Cities. For the first quarter, we expect Mortgage originations to decrease 40% from the prior quarter as we enter, again, another seasonally weaker quarter for our Mortgage business. Page 23 provides an overview of our non-interest expense. During the quarter, non-interest expense increased 3.7%. Excluding one-time items such as severance and a donation to Minnesota Housing, non-interest expense grew 2.4%.

The increase in expenses is mainly due to inflationary pressures experienced in our technology contract renewals and due to higher audit examination fees. As we continue to deal with inflationary pressures, we do expect our overall expenses for 2024 to grow low-single digits on a reported basis. Turning to page 24, credit continues to remain very strong. We had net recoveries of 4 basis points in the quarter. Our non-performing assets percentage was 22 basis points, compared to 23 basis points in the prior quarter. Our allowance for credit losses on loans -- total loans was 1.3%. We had a provision during the quarter mainly due to strong loan growth and unfunded commitments. I’ll discuss our capital liquidity on page 25. During the quarter, we repurchased $2.1 million of outstanding stock at an average price of $17.65.

Our capital remains well above regulatory minimum levels, which is well above the 6.5% minimum threshold. On the bottom right, you’ll see the breakdown of our sources of over $2 billion in potential liquidity. Overall, we continue to remain well positioned from both a liquidity and capital standpoint to support future growth or weather any economic uncertainty. To summarize on page 26, we ended the year on a very strong note with great momentum going into the new year. We saw strong organic loan and deposit growth, the highest from -- since -- the highest in our history. Our net interest margin improved as the Fed finally paused and strong organic production helped continue to remix the balance sheet. We expect continued improvement in our net interest margin going forward.

Our fee businesses, which continue to be a differentiator for us, as over 50% -- 54% of our revenues are non-spread based. Our capital remains strong and we remain committed to returning capital prudently. With that, I will now open it up for Q&A.

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