SCBT Financial Corp. is a rare breed in an industry reeling from the recession and the real estate crash. The Columbia-based bank owner, which entered the Charleston market about three years ago, has remained profitable throughout the prolonged economic downturn and, to the joy of its investors, it hasn't had to cut its dividend.
"We've weathered it pretty well, to date," said Robert R. Hill Jr., president and chief executive officer of SCBT, also known as South Carolina Bank and Trust.
Under Hill, a 1988 graduate of The Citadel, the lender was the first based in the state to repay money it received from the government under the Treasury Department's Troubled Asset Relief Program.
More recently, SCBT added to its growing three-state footprint under a deal with the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. In January, it took over the failed 110-year-old Community Bank & Trust of Cornelia, Ga., extending its reach along U.S. Interstate 85. In the Charleston area, the bank has six offices.
"We feel we've been the best-keep secret in the Carolinas," said Arthur P. Swanson, regional president for SCBT's Charleston operations. "We've got a good story to tell."
Earlier this month, that job fell to Hill, who was in Charleston to give an update on the company's performance and goals to investors and customers.
Hill was named president of the bank 10 years ago this month, when it was based in Orangeburg and operated under the name First National Corp. Hill was elevated to the CEO slot in November 2004 and has since led SCBT through a multistate expansion while steering it through the recession.
Since storming the crowded Charleston market, the bank has amassed about $400 million is assets locally. Loan growth is up 17 percent in the first five months of this year.
"As we perceive it, we've only just begun to build," Hill said. "This has been one of our fastest-growing and one of our quickest-to-profitability markets that we've ever come into."
Hill talked shop with The Post and Courier before his May 6 presentation. Some edited excerpts:
Q: SCBT has weathered the downturn fairly well. What do you attribute that to?
A: Number one is people. As we've built our franchise through the years ... the thing we've not sacrificed was that we would only build a market or invest with the best bankers available. ... We've hired a lot of teams in the Carolinas, even during this downturn, and that's helped us continue to have some revenue growth.
Also, our three core ... fundamentals are: soundness, first; profitability, second; and growth, third. A lot of banks got caught up in growth first. We got out of whack a few places here and there, too. But, for the most part, we were able to stick to soundness, profitability and growth, in that order.
Q; Where have you taken some hits?
A: "We've had some issues; they're mostly coastal. Beaufort County ... and Myrtle Beach have been the hardest-hit coastal markets, and we've had some issues there. But our credit problems have been manageable, and, fortunately, we've been able to earn our way through the credit cycle. So we've not eroded any of our capital through this downturn.
Q: What about your recent acquisition in Georgia?
A. We knew we wanted to do one, but we really kind of held our fire until we found one that fit well. It's right across the South Carolina line, so geographically it really fit well. It's near I-85, between Charlotte and Atlanta. And we're in Charlotte and Greenville, so it kind of takes us all the way down the 85 corridor.
Q: You envision SCBT as a "Carolinas consolidator." Can you elaborate?
A: On the other side of this recession, we think there will be a fairly big consolidation wave. A lot of smaller banks that ... survived the downturn will want to look for a partner.
There are 7,500 banks today. We think that number could go to 4,500 or 5,000. If you look back to 1991 when we went through the savings and loan crisis, ... we had 14,000 banks. It's gone from 14,000 to 7,500 over the last 20 years.
There's just overcapacity in the industry, so a natural place for us to be a consolidator because of our size is where we operate today: the Carolinas and the eastern side of Georgia.
Q: Any specific new markets in mind?
A: Our strategy is to do what makes sense. It's got to be the right market, it's got to be the right people, it's got to be the right bank. ... Just like Community Bank & Trust: It wasn't necessarily on our radar screen, but it became an opportunity.
Q: South Carolina recently saw its first bank failure in a decade. Are there more to come?
A: Overall, South Carolina's banking environment is ... significantly healthier than Georgia's or Florida's, and really, in terms of all the southeastern states, it's one of the stronger ones.
But we're also not immune, so I think you'll see some more problems come up. But it's nothing like you're seeing in most other states.
Q: As a result of this recession, have you modified your business?
A: We loaned a billion dollars in the Carolinas last year. So we've we continue to lend ... Our mortgage business last year was really strong.
Q: You mentioned mortgages: What will the impact be on that business now that the federal tax credit for home purchases has expired?
A: I think that will have some impact. The tax credit was a very positive stimulus. But the higher-end market has still been pretty locked up.
Most of the transactions have been in the lower-end price range. .... Now, we're bottoming out or getting close to the bottom in terms of home values, and you're seeing more investors come back into the market who want to buy large residential jumbo-type mortgages.
It's early, but I believe activity is going to pick up over the next 12 months.
Q: What's your outlook for the broader economy?
A: There are an awful lot of signs nationally that things are doing better. I tend to still believe, unfortunately, that in the Carolinas we were six to nine months later than the rest of the country going into this, and we'll be six to nine months later coming out.