The banking business has changed plenty over the past 25 years, between busts and booms, prosperity and peril, recessions and recoveries.

Less so at the southeast corner of Meeting and Wentworth streets in downtown Charleston.

Once the site of a carriage factory and other businesses, it's now the home of the Bank of South Carolina, which opened its doors on this day in 1987. It also offers a glimpse into the not-so-distant past, to an era before transactions and profit chasing trumped personal service and sound lending practices.

The boss' office offers a clue. Rather than sequestering himself upstairs, CEO Hugh C. Lane Jr. spends his workdays in a glassy storefront space right next to the main entrance. Out in the lobby, transactions large and small are handled at neatly appointed desks.

"We don't have tellers," Lane said.

Old school

The old-school approach isn't surprising. Lane, 64, is a Charleston native and fourth-generation banker whose grandfather established Citizens and Southern Bank in Georgia in 1903 and whose father was president and later chairman of Citizens and Southern National Bank of South Carolina.

Lane himself was a rising executive at "C&S" until hitting a career crossroads in the mid-1980s. He felt he'd have to uproot his family and move to a bigger financial market such as Atlanta to fulfill his professional ambitions.

"But all my interests were in Charleston," he said.

Lane made local headlines when he left the regional bank in 1986, stating his intentions to start a small community lender that would cater to local professionals, business owners and individuals seeking knockdown service.

He led a group of 21 organizers who raised $10.6 million in seed money. The tiny startup pulled in almost $7 million in deposits the day it opened its Meeting Street office.

The Bank of South Carolina has weathered Hurricane Hugo, the Navy base shutdown, and, more recently, the brutal, lingering recession that began in late 2007. It has branched out to the suburbs of Summerville, Mount Pleasant and West Ashley. It has accumulated assets of $343 million.

Through it all, the lender has consistently racked up annual profits every year since it was formed.

Lane, who is the single-largest shareholder with a roughly 12 percent equity stake, rattles off the numbers. The bank has earned about $43 million in net income and returned about $22 million to its investors in the form of dividends over the past quarter-century. While the Nasdaq-listed stock is thinly traded, the original shares that launched the business are now valued at about $32 million, he said.

"I don't think that's too bad," Lane said Thursday.


The bank makes no apologies for staying small and true to its original game plan.

"In almost any business, you're either a niche business or a franchise business," Lane said. "We stayed a niche business."

That button-downed strategy paid off during the latest economic downturn. Unlike many of its peers, the Bank of South Carolina didn't partake in the lending free-for-all that helped pump up the housing bubble.

It steered clear of the temptations of subprime mortgages and other profitable but ultimately destructive financial products, focusing instead on whether its borrowers were actually creditworthy, Lane said.

"We stuck to our game," he said.

The company's financial discipline and strong balance sheet haven't gone unnoticed. Each year, Kentucky-based Financial Management Consulting Group analyzes all of the pertinent numbers on every bank headquartered in the Palmetto State. The Bank of South Carolina came out as the best overall performer for 2011, the second time it achieved the study's top ranking.

Looking ahead, Lane senses that the local economy finally bottomed out last year and is in the early stages of a slow but steady recovery. As for his own industry, he noted that many lenders are still struggling with a glut of bad loans and a severe lack of capital. He predicts South Carolina is likely to see a few more bank failures.

Looking back, Lane likes to go beyond the past 25 years to a connection with a corporate ancestor, if only in name.

Records show the original Bank of South Carolina, which operated in Charleston from 1801 to 1864, made a $37,000 loan to help reconstruct an Ansonborough carriage factory destroyed in the great fire of 1838. Some 174 years later, that building at 256 Meeting St. is now the headquarters of the "new" Bank of South Carolina.

Reach John P. McDermott at 937-5572.