Renaming First Federal Bank 'a very detailed process'

The South State Bank logo will replace SCBT in June. First Federal's branches will make the switch in July.

When two of South Carolina's oldest banks got hitched last year, they purposely maintained their names from their single days.

But the aging and newly reinvigorated newlyweds also decided that, eventually, an entirely new identity would be necessary to preserve and strengthen the marriage.

The time is at hand.

This week, shareholders of First Financial Holdings will vote to change the name of the bank owner to South State Corp. It's likely to be approved Tuesday.

It's also the last formal step in the upcoming rebranding of five lenders in three states to South State Bank. The biggest of those, by far, are First Federal Bank of Charleston and Columbia-based SCBT, short for South Carolina Bank & Trust. Both have roots stretching back to the Great Depression. With that eight-decade heritage in the backdrop - combined with the human tendency to resist change - switching names could be problematic.

"One of the things that was critically important to us throughout this rebranding process was to respect the heritage of the two organizations," said John Windley, chief banking officer.

First Financial originally was established in Charleston as the parent for First Federal and some side businesses. The whole shooting match was snapped up last summer by SCBT Financial Corp., which decided to keep the acquired company's name, if only temporarily.

The $447 million stock swap was SCBT's biggest acquisition ever, and it placed five distinct lenders under one roof.

Come this summer, the more than 120 branches that make up those businesses will be unified under one name - South State Bank. The move reflects CEO Robert Hill's ambition to grow the lender into a regional powerhouse in the Carolinas and beyond.

The change is scheduled to take effect in June and wrap up July 21 with the conversion of the First Federal franchise to the South State name.

It's all part of $20 million in capital spending aimed at eliminating redundant expenses, such as maintaining five separate websites, and truly merging First Federal, SCBT and the other lending units: NCBT of Charlotte, Community Bank & Trust of Cornelia, Ga., and the Savannah Bank of coastal Georgia.

"Customers didn't know we were one company," said Kellee McGahey, director of corporate communications for First Financial.

Interestingly, and previously undisclosed, the higher-ups at First Federal were planning to rename the venerable Charleston lending institution even before SCBT proposed in February 2013. The reason came down to practicality, McGahey said.

"As we entered other markets, First Federal was a common name," she said.

As it turned out, expansion-minded SCBT itself was looking to establish a new corporate identity that wouldn't pigeonhole it to any one state.

The companies started putting their marketing heads together almost immediately after the merger announcement. McGahey said she and her future co-workers "spent a lot of time thinking about the words" the banks felt were critical to defining and maintaining their brands.

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That culminated in a marathon brainstorming session last fall at First Federal's corporate campus on Mall Drive in North Charleston.

"We locked ourselves in a conference room truly for an entire day and walked out with 357 name combinations," McGahey said.

Graphic designers, in turn, came up with about 70 logos, including some variants. The company solicited feedback from hundreds of customers and other consumers

"It was a very detailed process," McGahey said.

The list of names was slashed to five that could be protected by trademark. Then to two.

The company announced the switch to South State to its employees on Feb. 18 at an all-hands company meeting in Columbia.

McGahey wouldn't say what the runner-up name was.

Contact John McDermott at 937-5572.