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Hancock Whitney plans hiring buildup to capitalize on market disruption

Hancock Whitney Corp. is hoping to hire more bankers in 2020 than it has in each of the past five or six years as it seeks to take advantage of market disruption from a wave of large mergers across its footprint.

CFO Michael Achary said the bank sees a "once in a lifetime opportunity" as it positions itself to boost commercial and middle-market lending in the second half of the year. Hancock Whitney's branch network extends from Texas to Florida, a region where the competitive landscape is being reshaped by a series of large deals. These include the merger of equals that created Truist Financial Corp.; the pending MOE between First Horizon National Corp. and IBERIABANK Corp.; and the pending MOE between Texas Capital Bancshares Inc. and Independent Bank Group Inc.

Hancock Whitney projected that its expenses will increase 6% to 7% in 2020 compared with 2019. The majority of the increase is related to routine growth in expenses and the bank's 2019 acquisition of MidSouth Bancorp Inc. But about a fifth of the increase "is purely offensive," President and CEO John Hairston said. The executives spoke on a call to discuss fourth-quarter earnings.

"That's in bankers, teams and technology investment, all geared to take advantage of what probably is the most sweeping market disruption we've had from our eastern border to our western border," Hairston said.

Hairston declined to provide the target number of hires the bank hopes to make, but said the actual number will depend on the opportunities that become available. The Gulfport, Miss.-based company is particularly interested in lenders in "granular," specialty niches, which it is pursuing to boost spreads across its portfolio.

In response to a question, Achary agreed that Hancock Whitney's focus on capitalizing on market disruption means it will likely not enter into a large merger itself in the near term.

"From an M&A perspective, at least, for the next year or two, I think what you can expect from us is the kind of transactions we've done in the last two or three years," Achary said, pointing to the MidSouth deal and Hancock Whitney's 2017 purchase of First NBC Bank.