Feb. 17--First Federal and SCBT banks were closed for Presidents Day on Monday, but that didn't stop hundreds of their employees from Charleston and elsewhere from spending the day together in Columbia.
The purpose was the unveiling of a new corporate identity for owner First Financial Holdings Inc. and its five lending businesses.
Come this summer, the banks will share one name at their more than 120 branches: South State Bank. The change is scheduled to take effect in June and July, when the banks transfer to the same technology backbone.
At First Federal, the switch will spell the end of a household brand that goes back to its opening in downtown Charleston nearly 80 years ago.
It also reflects the newly unified bank's plan to grow into a regional lending juggernaut in South Carolina and beyond.
"Now we're bringing these five brands together into one name, and it really positions us as the premier regional bank in the Southeast," First Financial Holdings CEO Robert R. Hill Jr. said.
The parent company, to be renamed South State Corp., is investing about $20 million in capital improvements as it integrates the lending units. They include NCBT of Charlotte, Community Bank & Trust of Cornelia, Ga., and The Savannah Bank of coastal Georgia.
"The name change is obviously an external sign of that, but we have a lot of internal things going on as well," Hill said.
For instance, First Financial Holdings is spending $3.5 million to improve its entire network of automated teller machines.
"We're also upgrading a number of branches and spending significantly on technology upgrades," Hill said.
Locally, the company also is making improvements at the First Federal Corporate Center on Mall Drive in North Charleston, where all mortgage-related functions and other back-office operations are now handled.
"Mall Drive will continue to be our support center for the entire company," Hill said.
While 20 overlapping branches will be closed this year, including five in the local area, Hill stressed that Charleston will remain a growth hub for South State.
"Charleston today, if you look at it, is the most significant market we operate in," he said. "We have more branches, more employees -- 656 -- and more customers than in any other market we serve."
First Financial Holdings started as the owner of First Federal, the largest and oldest bank based in the region. In a surprise move, Columbia-based SCBT Financial Corp. announced a deal to buy its Charleston rival a year ago to help accelerate growth, cut $40 million in costs and expand its Southeast footprint.
The deal brought together two community banks that opened their doors months apart amid the Great Depression in 1934, when SCBT opened in Orangeburg and First Federal set up shop on Broad Street.
Last year's buyout paired SCBT's operations in the Midlands and along the Interstate 85 business corridor with First Federal's large coastal franchise. SCBT Financial adopted the First Financial Holdings name when the $447 million sale closed in July.
Under Hill, SCBT became known as an expansion-driven, opportunistic buyer that has expanded its reach into North Carolina and Georgia in recent years, while many of it competitors were reeling from the last recession. Its loans and other assets have quadrupled to about $8 billion since 2009, making it the largest publicly traded bank headquartered in South Carolina.
Hill sees more room to run as the number of small or weakened lenders seek out stronger, complementary buyers. The Citadel graduate envisions the new South State nearly doubling in size to about $15 billion in assets before the end of the decade, primarily through mergers and acquisitions.
"Because we're so much larger than the small banks but still a lot smaller than the larger national-type banks, it puts us in a position to be a consolidator of choice in the Southeast," Hill said. "We're building that platform today to carry us into the future."
North Carolina, in particular, is a state where "we have more building to do," he said.
Hill doesn't expect to announce any new buyouts this year, saying he wants to make sure the South State transition goes smoothly.
"This is too important for us not to execute well," he said.
Most employees learned about the new name at a meeting in downtown Columbia. Chartered buses transported about 400 local First Federal and SCBT staffers from Mall Drive to the Midlands early Monday.
Corey Spann of North Charleston didn't have a strong opinion about the new moniker after learning about it around mid-afternoon.
"I will probably investigate it a little bit to find out if it's just a name change or if they're going to change their policies too," Spann said outside the First Federal branch on Ashley Avenue in Charleston. "First Federal is my back-up account now, so I'll have to see if they're going to benefit me or fit my lifestyle any better or not."
Abigail Darlington contributed to this report. Reach John McDermott at 937-5572.
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