Hancock Holding Company
Hancock Holding Company
One Hancock Plaza
Gulf port, Mississippi 39501
Total Assets: $3 billion
Stock Exchanges: NASDAQ
SICs: 6022 State Commercial Banks
Hancock Holding Company was incorporated in 1984 to acquire the Hancock Bank of Gulfport, Mississippi. Through its primary subsidiary of Hancock Bank, the fifth largest bank in Mississippi, as well as Hancock Bank of Louisiana and other financial service firms, the company offers a wide variety of products, such as commercial, mortgage, and consumer loans, savings and checking accounts, and safe deposit facilities. The company also manages real estate property, provides general insurance and consumer financing services, runs over 50 branch offices, and operates 85 automated teller machines.
Throughout its history, Hancock Bank has been closely tied to the events and natural resources of the Mississippi Gulf Coast. In 1898, the town of Gulfport was incorporated to reflect the growing population and commerce in the area. Sawmills and lumberyards operated up and down the Pearl and Jourdan Rivers, and Bay St. Louis became the county seat. Recognizing the essential need for a bank, a number of prominent citizens gathered together in order to establish and organize a bank to serve the growing needs of the county. On October 9, 1899, Hancock County Bank opened its doors for business. Located in a tiny wood-frame building, the bank began its operations with $10,000 in capital and $8,277 in deposits.
The first president of the bank, Peter Hellwege, was one of the original organizers and stockholders. Hellwege was the president of a highly successful brokerage house in New Orleans and had significant experience in financial matters. The new president’s first task was to arrange for a permanent building for the bank. In 1900, he contracted a firm to construct a two-story brick building in Bay St. Louis that would serve as the headquarters of all Hancock County Bank operations. In September of the same year, the bank moved into its new location.
Determined to take advantage of the economic activity within the region, Hellwege opened a branch bank at Pearlington, Mississippi, the first branch bank to operate on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Not long afterward, Hellwege opened another branch bank in Pass Christian, Mississippi, a thriving community with shipping and resort businesses. During this time, the Bay St. Louis office began to sell casualty insurance. By the time of Hellwege’s death in 1907, the total assets of the Hancock Bank had increased to $382,508. The bank was now 33 times larger than when it first opened in 1899.
The second president of Hancock County Bank was Eugene H. Roberts. Like Hellwege, he was also one of the bank’s founders and had also served as the bank’s first cashier as well. Under Roberts’ leadership, the Hancock County Bank made one of its first acquisitions, a local insurance company, for the purpose of establishing an insurance department within the bank. Roberts also supervised one of the earliest and most memorable of the bank’s advertising campaigns. He purchased a number of highly prized rams to lend to sheep farmers to improve their herds and upgrade the quality of their wool. When Roberts resigned in 1918, assets of Hancock County Bank were nearing $800,000.
The next president was not a founder, but had served on the bank’s board of directors since 1900. Horatio S. Weston, the owner of the world’s biggest sawmill at the time, continued in the tradition of his predecessors. He expanded and improved all the bank’s facilities, including relocating the Pearlington branch office to Logtown, building a new facility in Long Beach, and adding a two-story building in Pass Christian. As the bank grew, so did its activities. Hancock County Bank provided low interest loans to farmers in order to encourage strawberry growing and the improvement of radish crops. One of the bank’s major investments during the 1920s included the purchase of all the county bonds in order to guarantee the construction of a gravel road through Mississippi that was to become U.S. 90, which would run all the way from Florida to California. In 1927, Hancock County Bank reported its assets at $3.5 million.
When Weston was incapacitated by a stroke in 1929, an employee named Leo W. Seal, Sr.—one of the workers Weston had brought with him when he left Weston Lumber Company—took over operational control of the bank. When Weston died in 1932, Seal had his hands full with the worst years of the Great Depression. From 1929 to 1932, over 160 banks in the state of Mississippi failed to remain open. But Hancock, under the astute management of Seal, never closed its doors.
Although the bank went through difficult years, its assets dropping to $1.7 million by 1932, it was the Depression itself that spurred the future growth of the company. When Gulfport’s three banks were unable to open at the end of November 1931, and the city was left without a bank, Hancock County Bank was given permission to open a branch office in the municipality. Most importantly, after Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Bank Holiday proclamation in 1933, Hancock County Bank was one of the banks allowed to reopen. Making himself available during the holiday to assuage the fears of jittery customers, Seal was rewarded by seeing deposits at his bank increase when it reopened.
Not long afterward, Hancock County Bank became a member of the Federal Deposit Insurance Company, which guaranteed customer savings up to a certain amount. In a restructuring move designed to increase the bank’s working capital, Seal closed the branch offices in Long Beach and Logtown, and chartered and divested the Hancock Insurance Agency from the bank’s operations.
By 1938, the bank had done so well that the deposits in the Harrison County branches surpassed those of the main office. As a result, Seal had the bank’s charter amended in order to relocate its headquarters to Gulfport and also changed the name from Hancock County Bank to the Hancock Bank.
The bank continued to grow during the war years. In fact, Hancock implemented a very unusual service during this time. While most banks across the United States were only paying interest on the first $1,000 in an individual’s savings account, and sometimes paying no interest whatsoever, Hancock Bank assured its customers of a one percent interest rate on their entire balance. As an additional service to its customers, the bank opened a branch office on the Gulfport Army Air Base, so that soldiers, shipyard employees, and construction personnel were able to cash their paychecks and complete other banking business.
The postwar years and the entire decade of the 1950s were marked by increasing assets and significant expansion activities. A branch office was reopened in Long Beach, becoming one of the first facilities to include drive-in banking services in the country. Not long afterwards, the bank opened another branch on Pass Road in Gulfport, and still another branch in Mississippi City-Handsboro. In addition. Seal approved of a new four-story annex to the company’s headquarters in Gulfport.
During the early 1960s, the U.S. government and NASA, under the direction of President John F. Kennedy, announced plans for a rocket test facility in order to land a man on the moon by the end of the decade; one of the sites under consideration was located in southern Mississippi. By 1962, the government had decided to acquire 140,000 acres of land in the Hancock and Pearl River County areas and planned to begin construction on the rocket test facility as soon as possible. This meant that all of the people in the area would have to be relocated which, not surprisingly, caused an uproar, prompting Senator John Stennis to call on Leo Seal for help. Seal not only advised the senator on financial matters surrounding construction of the test site, but also convinced the people affected that by relocating they were helping the government of the United States.
When Leo Seal, Sr. passed away in 1963, the Hancock Bank’s assets had grown from $1.7 million to $41.8 million. His son, Leo W. Seal, Jr., a graduate of Harvard Business School who had worked at Continental Illinois Bank in Chicago, was named the fifth president in the bank’s history. Leo Seal, Jr., immediately took advantage of the opportunities offered by the development of the Mississippi Gulf Coast region. The new president established a branch office on the NASA installation site, the first bank to do so in the nation. Additional branch offices were opened in Orange Grove, Edgewater Park, the U.S. Naval “Seebee” Center, Bayou View, West Bay St. Louis, Diamondhead, Pearlington, and Pineville. The company’s impressive One Hancock Plaza building was also constructed during this time, occupied by the administrative offices of the bank. Expanded banking services were also initiated by the younger Seal, including the Hancock Travel Agency, the Hancock Mortgage Company, the Harrison Finance Company, a manufacturing joint venture, an electronic processing facility, and a credit life insurance company.
Moreover, during the 1970s the bank initiated a merger and acquisition campaign in order to expand its presence and services throughout the state. In 1973, Hancock Bank merged with the Bank of Commerce in Poplarville, and in 1975 with the Bank of Picayune. Negotiations were also underway to merge with Pascagoula-Moss Point Bank, located in Jackson County. This merger would bring 11 additional branches to Hancock Bank’s growing network, including offices in Moss Point, Kreole, Escatawpa, St. Martin, Gautier, Pascagoula, and Ocean Springs.
The 1980s were marked by the participation of Leo Seal, Jr., in many public and social activities that were highly beneficial to the state. Seal was instrumental in lobbying for a four-lane highway that gave greater access to the NASA test facility and the surrounding area. From 1961 to 1985, shipping activity in the Port of Gulfport increased, due in part to the tireless efforts of Seal, who had successfully lobbied to transfer the Gulf of Gulfport from municipal to state ownership. Perhaps one of the most important of Seal’s efforts involved his support for local business. When national companies were close to finalizing plans to build or expand facilities in either Hancock or Harrison Counties, only to have the primary financial underwriter back out, Seal was able to arrange for financing through the Hancock Bank, thereby improving the region’s business activity. Seal was also instrumental in rebuilding the surrounding community in the wake of the destruction caused by Hurricane Camille. Seal called together a meeting of all the mayors, company presidents, and CEOs of the counties hit hardest by the hurricane, and formed a group to present a unified and comprehensive redevelopment plan to the Mississippi state legislature and federal government.
The Hancock Holding Company was formed in 1984 for the purpose of acquiring Hancock Bank, and during the late 1980s and early 1990s continued its expansion through mergers and acquisitions. The company also began to exhibit a major presence in Louisiana by merging with the First State Bank, located in Baker, Louisiana. This merger provided Hancock with four more branches in East Baton Rouge Parish. Washington Bank and Trust Company, situated in Franklinton, Louisiana, was also purchased, adding another six branches in Washington Parish. Another major acquisition included the First National Bank of Denham Springs, Louisiana, bringing a total of seven branch offices in Livingston Parish under the wing of Hancock.
Hancock Holding Company has continued the tradition established by Leo Seal, Jr., to improve the welfare of the communities that its banks serve. The company was involved in many community development and education programs in the 1990s, the most important of which included educational loans and grants to Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, University of Southern Mississippi-Gulf Coast, Pearl River Community College, Louisiana State University, the University of Southern Mississippi, Southern University, and William Carey College on the Coast.
As it neared the turn of the 21st century, Hancock Holding Company was confident about its future. Assets continued to grow steadily, and the company’s campaign to provide better services throughout the Mississippi and Louisiana gulf regions continued to improve. The company listed a total of 58 offices and 85 automatic teller machines in Mississippi and Louisiana in 1995. Although competition within the financial services industry was intense, by doing business primarily along the Gulf Coast of two states, Hancock Holding Company was well situated for the new millennium.
Hancock Bank of Louisiana, Gulfport Building, Inc. of Mississippi, Hancock Insurance Agency, Hancock Bank Securities Corporation, Harrison Life Insurance Company (79%), Hancock Mortgage Corporation, Town Properties, Inc., Harrison Financial Services, Inc.
“Hancock Holding In A Louisiana Acquisition,” American Banker, July 11, 1994, p. 6.
“Locally Owned Banks Offer Small Business Owners Superior Service,” Bank Marketing, April 1993, pp. 43-45.
Marjanovic, Steven. “Major Investments Expected In New Product Development,” American Banker, September 21, 1994, p. 12.
Meredith, Robyn, “FDIC Lets State Banks Do What National Banks Can’t,” American Banker, August 18, 1994, p. 2.
Seal. Leo., Jr., The Hancock Bank, Newcomen Society: New York, 1988.
“Supreme Court Allows State-Chartered Banking Subsidiaries To Sell Insurance,” The New York Times, January 14, 1992, p. C8.