Charleston’s banking business continues to bulk up

Trouche

The lineup of banks duking it out in the Charleston market continues to expand.

ServisFirst, the latest newcomer, is rolling into town all the way from Alabama.

The Birmingham-based lender already has hired four seasoned local commercial bankers and is operating from a temporary office on Bowman Road in Mount Pleasant until it can secure a permanent local headquarters to move into later this year.

“It is a great growth market,” ServisFirst Bancshares CEO Tom Broughton said during a conference call with industry analysts Wednesday. “I mean, there’s good potential growth in South Carolina.”

Broughton’s bullish outlook is based in part on an unusual yardstick.

“We found that office space is very expensive in Charleston, which is a sign that it’s a really good market,’ he said. “So we are optimistic about it.”

ServisFirst is jumping into a market teeming with competition. A fresh crop of outside banks has been setting up shop in the Charleston region, enticed by the growing population base and an economy that’s outperforming most of its peers. Another big draw is the consolidation within the industry, which provides an opening in terms of clients and bankers for opportunistic lenders.

Some of the newer names dotting the Charleston landscape include NewBridge Bank of Greensboro, N.C., and Memphis, Tenn.-based First Tennessee Bank, which hung out their shingles last year.

Leading the Palmetto State charge for ServisFirst is Tom Trouche, who left the recently acquired First Citizens Bank & Trust in December, shortly after being named its top Southern coastal region executive.

His new employer’s goal is to get to $300 million in assets, namely loans, in Charleston within five years.

Trouche said he got to know ServisFirst and its CEO Broughton through a mutual acquaintance.

“What attracted me to them is the business model,” he said Thursday. “It really is a quite simple business model. It’s traditional commercial banking services — loan-making and deposit-taking. ... Based on the calls we’ve made to clients and prospects so far, it definitely resonates with them as well.”

The bank was formed 10 years ago and went public in May. It has grown to $4 billion in assets spread over just 13 branches. It earned $52 million last year.

Until last week, ServisFirst had no operations in South Carolina. Its full-service retail locations are concentrated in its home state and just across the southern border, in Pensacola, Fla. It also has a loan production outpost to the north in Nashville. It’s expanding east into Georgia this month, when it expects to close its $41 million purchase of Atlanta-based Metro Bank.

“They’re looking for good markets, growing markets in the Southeast where there is a pool of talented bankers who are ready to be able to deliver products without a lot of bureaucracy,” Trouche said.

What ServisFirst won’t have is a dense brick-and-mortar network, though Trouche can see an office perhaps in the North Charleston-Summerville corridor and other high-growth areas.

“We don’t think that’s the future of banking,” he said.

He described the approach as “branch-light, technology-heavy.”

“I’m talking right now on an iPhone,” he said. “Many would say that’s your new branch.”

The bank from Birmingham also is sniffing around other markets in South Carolina.

“Charleston is just the start,” he said.

Trouche’s boss is shying away from outright acquisitions. Broughton, the chief executive officer, said ServisFirst intends “to stick to our organic growth opportunities.”

“We would certainly not buy a bank that can’t grow faster than we can, so that rules out most of the banks that are for sale,” Broughton told analysts during last week’s earnings call.

In the end, surviving and thriving in a crowded market all comes down to pleasing the customer, Trouche added.

“We all have the same products more or less,” he said. “So it’s service where you outperform your competition.”

Contact John McDermott at 937-5572