Bank background

CertusBank (“certus” is Latin for certain) was started by Blue Ridge Holdings, which is now CertusHoldings Inc. Its directors include Hildy Teegen, dean of the Moore School of Business at the University of South Carolina.The bank’s three top executives and the board chairman are African-Americans, but the company does not stress that distinction. A look at the top management:Milton H. Jones Jr., executive chairman: A 32-year veteran of Bank of America and its predecessor companies. Most recently he was serving as the bank’s market president for Georgia.Walter L Davis, co-CEO: former executive vice president of retail credit and direct lending at Wachovia Corp. and former principal in Bank of America’s Real Estate Syndicated Capital Markets Group.Charles M. Williams, co-CEO: former managing director and chief administrative officer of Bank of America’s global corporate and investment bank.Angela Webb, president: former human resources executive and senior manager of Wachovia Bank’s mortgage and retail credit division.Source: Securities and Exchange Commission

A bank that didn’t have a dime in deposits 18 months ago made its Charleston debut last week. And it made quite the impression in the process.

Expansion-minded CertusBank has had growth on the brain from day one, pursuing a strategy of picking the carcasses of failed and distressed lenders to build a new community banking franchise.

“We are acquisitive,” said Charlie Williams, co-chief executive officer.

Last week’s rollout in Charleston was a slightly different animal. Unlike previous market entries, the crew from Upstate-based CertusBank didn’t descend on the coast last week to take over a crippled peer from the government.

Instead, Williams and co-CEO Walter L. Davis came to town with a clean slate, saying they want to build a new banking operation from scratch in the Lowcountry, though it’s a fair bet that their local growth plan will include an acquisition down the road.

“You can’t be in South Carolina without being in Charleston,” said Davis, a Greenville native.

Davis cited the region’s increasingly diversified economy, singling out the Boeing 787 plant, the port and the Medical University of South Carolina.

“Charleston is a growing place. ... It used to be just tourism when I was growing up,” he said.

No. 8 of 9Acquisitions have been the game plan to date at CertusBank.

The lender’s privately held parent company was organized in late 2009 in Charlotte and Atlanta primarily by former senior Bank of America and Wachovia executives who raised $500 million from big investors. The idea was to use the money to buy failed or ailing banks for a song and rehabilitate them. Eventually, CertusBank would like to go public.

Angela Webb, CertusBank’s president, noted that federal regulators issued a mere nine bank charters in 2010.

“We were number eight out of nine,” Webb said.

Its first deal was the acquisition of the insolvent six-branch CommunitySouth Bank and Trust in Easley in January 2011. Two more similar but bigger government-assisted takeovers followed across the border in Georgia. In November, it looked further south and purchased more than $200 million in assets and seven offices from a Jacksonville, Fla., lender.

“We view our market as the southeastern region of the United States ... with a particular emphasis on the Carolinas, Georgia and northern Florida,” CertusBanks holding company said in a recently withdrawn public stock registration. “We believe that these markets have highly attractive demographic, economic and competitive dynamics that are consistent with our objectives and favorable to executing our acquisition and organic growth strategy.”

In relatively short order the company’s payroll has swelled to more than 500 employees. It now has total assets of $1.8 million and 31 branches spread over its four primary target markets. Charleston is next on the expansion checklist.

Setting up shopThe young bank knows how to make an entrance.

Last year it wowed its new hometown of Greenville by announcing it would lease more than 100,000 square feet of space to establish its permanent headquarters in a new downtown development called One.

Similarly, it’s aiming to make a splash as it cranks up its new Charleston franchise. Rather than slip quietly into the market, it announced Thursday that it will anchor a new office building at 174 Meeting St., in the heart of the peninsula’s financial district.

While tiny compared to the Greenville mother ship, the local digs will include a full-service branch on the ground floor and offices upstairs when completed this time next year. CertusBank also is planning to move quickly into the suburbs.

“We think we’ll have a highly recognizable presence here,” Williams said.

Williams, who played basketball for Marquette University while earning a degree in economics, elected to pass when asked whether any local banks tickled his fancy from an acquisition standpoint. He stressed that growing the business internally also is important.

It’s too early to speculate how many employees the bank will hire in Charleston, but Williams noted that CertusBank will be looking at expanding into complementary new business lines, citing insurance as one example. He also vowed that the lender will become a prominent player in civic and community affairs.

“There’s more to come,” he said.

Contact John P. McDermott at 937-5572.