Paradise Found

Article excerpt

St. Croix becomes a delightful but different locale for bank startup

I'd love to talk to you," Jim Brisbois says politely into the telephone. "But can we schedule it for Monday? We're closing up the bank. A hurricane is coming."

Ummm, sure.

Like his counterparts on the mainland, Brisbois, the president and CEO of Bank of St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands, knows all about loan-to-deposit ratios and other banking minutiae. But he also understands the devastating power of tropical storms.

Since arriving in 1991, Brisbois has spent several nights indoors, hunkered down, waiting out a hurricane. But he prefers not to escape to safer territory. "It's a helpless feeling to be in the states watching it on the Weather Channel," he says.

This time, the island was spared. Hurricane Jose closed to within 40 miles before veering north. Of course, hurricanes represent a tiny fraction of the island's weather. The other 360 days or so, trade winds keep temperatures between 70 and 90 degrees.

That's why the Virgin Islands, a U.S. territory located just east of Puerto Rico in the Caribbean Sea and Atlantic Ocean, is a popular vacation destination for Americans and Canadians. "People think of it as a postcard Disney World with palm trees, but it has a definite lifestyle," Brisbois says. "It's a way of life that's different than the United States."

How so? "If you're annoyed by inconveniences, this is not the place to live," he says. "We're 1,100 miles from Miami, and everything arrives by ship or air. You can't get things immediately. It's not like you have trucks coming in town every day."

Island Tpansplant

Raised in North Carolina, Brisbois worked in San Francisco before arriving in St. Croix. At age 50, he's a tall, somewhat lanky man, whose white mustache lends him an air of distinction. A job with Barclays Bank brought him to the island, but when the international bank closed its local office, businessman Robert Armstrong (owner of the island's largest inn, the Buccaneer Hotel) asked Brisbois to lead a start-up venture.

Brisbois didn't hesitate. "Just about everyone who works at a large bank wants to be involved in starting up a small one sometime," he says. "I wasn't about to pass up the opportunity to do that."

Since opening in 1995, Bank of St. Croix has attracted about $25 million in assets. The bank's only office is in the former Barclays site just outside of downtown Christiansted, the island's largest city.

Slightly more than 101,000 people live in the U.S. Virgin Islands, and about one-half of its residents call St. Croix home. The economic health of the islands is tied to tourism, which brings in about $400 million annually. Other major businesses include a pair of rum distilleries, a massive oil refinery and several factories.

At Bank of St. Croix, the focus is on serving the island's small businesses. Family-owned grocery stores, hotels, restaurants, Laundromats and doctors and lawyers are typical customers. They come to the bank for commercial real estate loans, lines of credit and equipment financing. After all, even the routine necessities of life must be attended to in Paradise.

"All of our loans are made for businesses on the island of St. Croix," Brisbois says. "Large, off-island banks don't have the feel for the market that we do."

That lending savvy might have to do with Brisbois' background. …