Coffee resigns from Tidelands: Executive had been bank's CEO since '03 opening

Robert E. Coffee Jr.

The executive who ran Mount Pleasant-based Tidelands Bank from its infancy has left the financially struggling lender.

Robert E. Coffee Jr. told The Post and Courier on Wednesday that he has stepped down as president and chief executive officer effective immediately.

'Basically, I resigned,' Coffee said.

'I'm no longer with the bank.'

Coffee declined to discuss the details behind his abrupt departure, saying only 'these things happen. But I'll be OK.'

He said he expected the bank's parent company and its board to disclose his resignation to the Securities and Exchange Commission.

As of late Wednesday, no notice had been filed with the SEC by Tidelands Bancshares Inc.

Tidelands gave no reason for Coffee's resignation in a written statement that named two top-level executives to take over his duties. Chief Administrative Officer Thomas H. Lyles has been appointed acting CEO, and Chief Financial Officer Alan Jackson will serve as acting president.

'Community banking is an important part of the economic health of our region, and Tidelands Bank is dedicated to helping continued economic recovery and growth along the South Carolina coast,' Lyles said in the statement.

He and Jackson were not available for comment Wednesday, a representative said.

Larry W. Tarleton, interim chairman of Tidelands' board of directors and a former publisher of The Post and Courier, thanked Coffee 'for his leadership and dedication since the startup of the bank eight years ago.'

'He never wavered from his strategic vision of creating a successful community bank serving coastal South Carolina and we couldn't have done it without his guidance,' Tarleton said in prepared remarks. 'We wish him well.'

After getting off to a fast start, the seven-branch bank has struggled to rebound from the sharp real estate downturn that has pummeled many lenders in South Carolina, especially along the coast.

Tidelands recently reported a $16.5 million deficit for 2010 as it continued to set aside more money to cover bad loans. In the previous two years it lost a combined $16.1 million.

The bank now is being pressed to raise more capital, curb certain business activities and take other corrective actions under two supervisory agreements it has entered into with the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond within the last few months.

At the same time, the bank has been warned that its shares could be removed from the Nasdaq Global Market because their value has fallen too low.

Coffee had been the CEO of the bank since the unveiling of its first office in Mount Pleasant on Oct. 7, 2003. Armed with more than $10 million from a stock sale, Tidelands went on to open six more branches, including outposts in the Hilton Head Island and Grand Strand markets, while aggressively courting deposits.

When the real estate industry began to list, losses began to appear on the balance sheet in 2007, the same year the national recession began. Business has deteriorated ever since.

'These are just very difficult times,' Coffee said in an interview a month ago.

In a dramatic move last summer, Tidelands sold off most of its $230 million government bond portfolio and used the proceeds to unwind other financial holdings that had been identified as potential liabilities.

As result, it slashed its assets by more than a quarter. The bank said that helped boost its capital ratios, which are being closely watched by regulators.

In November, Tidelands announced that it would defer future dividend payments on stock it sold for $14.5 million to the U.S. Treasury Department under its Troubled Asset Relief Program.

Last month, Coffee told The Post and Courier that one of the top challenges for Tidelands will be raising money from the private sector. He estimated that the bank will require about $12 million to get reclassified as 'well-capitalized.'

The hitch, he said, is that most big investors are unwilling to go near small Southeast banks saddled with bad real estate loans.

Amid all the turmoil, shareholders of Tidelands have suffered. The stock closed up slightly at 65 cents Wednesday. The original investors in the bank paid $10 a share.

Coffee, a Camden native and graduate of The Citadel, was among the largest individual stockholders. As of November he owned about 93,000 shares of Tidelands, or more than 2 percent of the total, according to the latest report on his holdings.

Contact John McDermott at 937-5572.