Bank on it

First Financial Holdings

Top executive: R. Wayne Hall

Founded: 1934 in Charleston

Headquarters: 2440 Mall Drive, North Charleston

Employees: 900

Branches: 66, mostly along the coast from Wilmington, N.C., to Hilton Head Island.

Stock symbol: FFCH. SCBT’s parent company will adopt First Financial Holdings Inc. as its official name and the FFCH stock symbol.

Website: firstfinancialholdings.com

SCBT Financical Corp.

Top executive: Robert R. Hill Jr.

Founded: 1933 in Orangeburg

Headquarters: 520 Gervais St., Columbia

Employees: 1,136

Branches: 84 in the Carolinas and Georgia. They operate under SCBT and four other names. One of the bank’s key growth areas is the I-85 corridor between Charlotte and Atlanta.

Stock symbol: SCBT. The shares closed up 55 cents, or 1.3%, to $43.73 on Wednesday

Website: scbtonline.com

Two of the top banks in South Carolina, including the oldest and largest based in the Charleston region, are merging to accelerate growth, cut costs and further expand their reach through acquisitions.

In a surprise move, First Federal owner First Financial Holdings Inc. and SCBT Financial Corp. announced Wednesday that they have agreed to a stock swap valued at about $302.4 million, or $18.30 for each share of First Financial.

The companies hope to complete the tax-free exchange in the third quarter. It will create the fifth-largest lender in South Carolina based on deposits.

Columbia-based SCBT, a growth-minded company that has expanded into North Carolinas and Georgia in recent years, is the buyer.

“I think it’s going to be a great, great partnership,” said Wayne Hall, chief executive officer of First Financial and First Federal. Hall will become president of SCBT.

The boards of the companies already have blessed the acquisition, which now needs to be approved by regulators and shareholders.

“This deal is low risk, financially attractive and has incredible long-term strategic value,” said SCBT chief Robert R. Hill Jr., who will retain the CEO title after the merger.

The transition will take most of 2014 to complete, he said. There are no immediate changes for customers.

“It’s a ways off before anything would change,” Hill said.

An undetermined number of branch closings and job cuts are likely. Most of the head-count reductions are expected to be reached through routine turnover and other forms of attrition.

The name that eventually will grace the combined 148 retail branches has not been decided.

Hill called First Federal “the gold standard of banking in Charleston and the other communities” it has served since it was founded as a savings and loan association on Broad Street about 78 years ago.

“This is a logical in-market expansion for both companies,” he said.

Hill stressed that SCBT and First Financial share some overlap and duplication, but for the most part the companies bring unique strengths and similar cultures to the deal.

“Our two banks complement each other significantly, and, because of our size, earnings power and strength, we will be uniquely positioned to build a premier regional bank in the Southeast,” he said.

Hill, a 1988 Citadel graduate, has been positioning SCBT as a “Carolinas consolidator.” The First Financial deal “says a lot more about the next 10 years than the next 10 months,” he said Wednesday.

Hill has been calling for a prolonged shakeout and thinning of the herd in the lending business, which is still recovering from the last real estate crash and the 2008 financial crisis. He has said that the number of U.S. banks could shrink by more than 40 percent to as few as 4,500.

He and Hall agreed that size, scale and stability will be critical to growth in the years ahead as weakened lenders in attractive Southeast markets will be forced to sell.

“There will be people who will be looking for partners, and we want to be a partner of choice,” Hill said.

The deal brings together a pair of community banks that opened their doors in the early 1930s.

It wasn’t until 2006 that SCBT expanded into the Charleston region, where it now has five branches. The company was expected to make an acquisition at some point.

Contact John McDermott at 937-5572.