I knew from day one when I met him that Rick was my man.”
So said Patriot Bank co-founder John Kantzas about his longtime friend and mentee, bank President Richard Muskus Jr., as the two sat in the community bank’s newly opened branch office at 999 Bedford St. in Stamford.
“I thought he was crazy,” deadpanned Muskus, when asked about his first impression of the 82-year-old Greek immigrant, who is known for his humor and storytelling, sometimes punctuated with salty language.
“I’m crazy, but I know it,” Kantzas shot back.
The senior executive, who will turn 83 in June, is officially listed as Patriot’s co-founder and business development adviser, but Muskus said he’s actually “the overall face of our branch system. When we decided to buy this property and build this bank,” across the street from Patriot’s 900 Bedford St. headquarters, “we started with where John’s office should be. He’s basically our public relations, customer relations and business development director.”
With his office just inside the entrance of the $3.5 million, 8,700-square-foot branch, Kantzas is well-positioned to greet customers and co-workers, which he did throughout his conversation with the Business Journal. Kantzas, who said his thick accent prevented him from rising in the executive ranks of the former Stamford Savings Bank, noted that he’s able to say, “Hello, how are you?” in various languages, including French, Polish, and of course English and Greek.
Leaving his native Greece for Australia when he was 20, Kantzas embarked upon a career building and selling real estate in Australia before coming to the U.S. in 1970.
Graduating from Brown University in 1978 with a degree in banking, Kantzas said he found that big banks were looking primarily to grow bigger rather than remaining customer-focused. He persevered at Stamford Savings, but by the late 1980s was more or less burnt out and left banking entirely to develop construction projects.
Then in 1991, friends Constantine Remoundos and Fred Giuliani suggested starting their own bank. Kantzas agreed, provided that they “treat people like people and not like numbers, like they do at the big banks.”
The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) was lukewarm to the idea, Kantzas said. “They told us there was no demand for loans in our territory.” Yet within a few months, he said, the group had secured $42 million worth of commercial and residential loans, satisfying the OCC.
Raising capital was the next hurdle. Kantzas said the group raised $7.4 million after being advised that it needed at least $6 million.
So it was on Aug. 31, 1994, that Patriot National Bank obtained its charter and opened for business as a community bank at 900 Bedford, with Remoundos, who died in 2015, serving as its first president.
Muskus, whose career up to 1996 had been spent in investment management at the likes of JPMorgan and Merrill Lynch, came to Patriot at the suggestion of his father, a longtime executive with the First National Bank of Greenwich. The elder Muskus, then sitting on Patriot’s advisory board, suggested his son apply to become a credit analyst at Patriot.
“I knew he was the right person for the job,” Kantzas said. “Rick and I can just look at each other and know what’s going on. With other people you talk out loud and they still don’t understand — which pisses me off!”
“We throw around terms like ‘personal touch’ and ‘relationship banking’ a lot,” Muskus said. “But with John you can see what it means. The level of pride he has is immeasurable.”
The mentor’s advice to his banking protégé? “I said to keep your eyes and ears open, always,” Kantzas recalled.
“That meant the most to me as I came up through the ranks,” said Muskus, who rose “from basically being the entire credit department” to executive vice president and chief lending officer in 2014. Last February he was named bank president. “Absorbing everything, both professionally and personally, creates who you are,” he said. “It focuses you as a person.”
Tenacity was important to both men during Patriot’s lean years. The bank was on the cusp of insolvency in 2010, when Michael Carrazza, now CEO and board chairman at Patriot Bank, led PNBK Holdings — consisting largely of institutional investors — in injecting $50 million into it. Over the next few months, the bank divested itself of $140 million in assets, selling off problem loans, closing nearly a quarter of its 19-branch network and reducing its workforce by about 30 employees.
Patriot Bank recently posted the strongest earnings in its history. This month it announced its planned acquisition of Hana SBL’s $490 million Small Business Administration loan portfolio, which Muskus and Carrazza predicted would make it a major player in the SBA space. Last year it announced it would acquire Prime Bank in Orange. As of midyear 2017, it had equity of $82 million on assets of $773.5 million.
“It’s working,” Muskus said. “We’re growing at a pace that nobody thought we would and that’s a tribute to the talent we have within the senior management group.”
Kantzas is very much a part of that group, he said.
“I couldn’t be happier to see what he’s done here,” Kantzas said of his protégé. “He proved to the rest of the world that I was right. Under his leadership, not only are we a successful bank, but we actually have a future.”
As for his own future, Kantzas makes no bones about it. “This is what I love, what I’m passionate about. The 91-year-old secretary of my church died at her desk, and that’s what I plan to do.”
“Crazy,” said Muskus, shaking his head.