GREENVILLE — In an announcement anticipated for days, United Community Bank made it official on Wednesday morning: The Blairsville, Ga.-born bank will move its corporate headquarters to downtown Greenville.
The bank plans to build a new tower that will rise seven stories from a parcel on East Camperdown Way, itself on an elevated knoll above the Reedy River at the center of downtown. The building, which replaces a two-story, decades-old structure currently housing a law firm, promises to make a visible impact on Greenville's skyline. Motorists will easily catch sight of the United Community Bank tower from Church Street, the main bypass that carries motorists downtown from Interstate 85.
The bank's move will nearly double its employee footprint in Greenville, where United Community Bank currently employs about 287 workers. The new headquarters will add 227 to that total.
With $17.8 billion in loans and other assets, United Community Bank is now the largest bank headquartered in South Carolina. It bumps Greenville-based Southern First from the top spot.
Architectural renderings of the new building, estimated at 90,000 to 100,000 square feet of office space, were not yet available this week. The structure will include a two-story parking deck and five stories of offices, United Community Bank chief executive officer Lynn Harton said. Up to 325 bank employees will fit into the new tower, and the bank plans to vacate office space it is leasing at two other buildings downtown — the old Palmetto Bank building on East North Street and executive offices at the ONE building on West Washington.
Harton said the bank has a very "connected culture" and being in an office together is important. At the same time, he said, he wanted a building close to Falls Park and downtown, a place where employees would want to come to work. The Liberty Bridge over the Reedy River is within walking distance of the future headquarters.
"We have some preliminary sketches, but the plans aren't finalized yet," Harton said.
The new headquarters will be at 200 E. Camperdown Way, a 1.9-acre parcel with an office building that currently houses the Wyche firm. Wyche, which sold the parcel for $5.75 million on Dec. 18, will move out by year's end, Harton said.
"Then we'll scrape it," he said.
United Community Bank anticipates starting construction on its new building in early 2022 and moving in by 2024. A bank branch will also be located on the site, according to the S.C. Department of Commerce. About 150 United Community Bank employees who work in the bank's mortgage, consumer credit, loan and audit operations in the former Erwin Penland building on East Broad Street will not be moving into the new tower.
In a broad-ranging interview Wednesday with The Post and Courier, Harton said the company has been talking about moving its headquarters "for years." Its current home in Blairsville is a two-and-a-half-hour drive due west from Greenville in the mountains of northeast Georgia and generally not large enough for a growing, multi-state bank.
United Community Bank has tripled in size since 2012 and Harton said he expects $2 billion to $2.5 billion in annual growth through new business and acquisitions in coming years.
Harton said Greenville's downtown is ripe territory for recruiting experienced banking talent to his company, and the city's location — along Interstate 85 between Charlotte and Atlanta — places the bank's new headquarters smack in the middle of its five-state territory. United Community Bank, which acquired Florida-based Seaside National Bank in July, has 160 branches in the Carolinas, Georgia, Tennessee and Florida.
"They are coming here with their family," Harton said of recruits. "We try to time it so they arrive in downtown when the lights are on and put them at one of the hotels and have a great dinner and walk them across the Falls Bridge before the sun goes down, and they start looking around and say, 'You know, this is a place I think I could live.'"
Greenville, said Harton, who is a native of Asheboro, N.C., is "definitely one of the best cities, easiest cities to recruit that I've ever seen."
United Community Bank focuses on small- to medium-sized businesses that need the heft of a regional financial institution for large loans but still want a level of personal customer service. Harton said that while BMW might be too big to seek financing from his bank, the German automaker's hundreds of suppliers in the region might come to him.
In addition to traditional banking services, United Community Bank also operates an equipment financing company.
Harton said the bank has enjoyed growth over the past year's challenging financial environment in part because of its ability to jump aggressively into the federal Paycheck Protection Program, part of a coronavirus relief package Congress passed last spring. United Community Bank completed 11,000 PPP loans with businesses for a total of $1.3 billion. Of those loans, about 3,000 were to new customers, Harton said.
Not including the PPP loans, United Community Bank enjoyed net loan growth of 8 percent during the third and fourth quarters of 2020, compared to zero net loan growth in most of the banking industry, Harton said. Much of that growth for United Community Bank was new business leveraged from new clients from the PPP program.
The bank generated about $19 million in proceeds from the PPP loans, and put about half that revenue into a new charitable arm, the United Community Bank Foundation.
Greenville small business owner Edward Johnson, whose family has owned Old Colony Furniture since the 1940s, reached out to United Community Bank when his company needed a PPP loan last spring. Johnson said he was able to keep all of his people paid through the store's mandatory closure and during weeks of nearly no customers walking through his doors. Under terms of the PPP loans at least 80 percent had to go toward payroll.
Johnson described being in constant contact with his banker by text message the night he submitted his PPP loan application.
"That three-month period was touch and go," Johnson said. "They were the knights in shining armor."
With its new downtown tower, the bank's anticipated investment in Greenville will be $24.8 million, the state Commerce Department said.
United Community Bank, founded in 1950, has had an executive presence in the Upstate — most notably with the hiring of Harton as its chief operating officer — since 2012. Harton was promoted to CEO in 2017.
Harton, 59, said he's committed to staying with the bank at least another decade.
"I love what I do. I love being here. I love the team that we've created," he said.
Harton himself came to Greenville in 2007 as part of a team focused on stabilizing Carolina First, a Greenville-based bank that had overextended itself on land loans. Harton helped guide the sale of Carolina First to TD Bank during the national financial crisis the following year — at the time one of only a few banks to sell rather than fail.
Greenville Mayor Knox White called the bank's decision to move to Greenville the latest affirmation of what the city has done "to retain and attract strong corporate citizens."
"With our mission to support financial services, entrepreneurship and advanced manufacturing, Greenville is establishing itself as a destination for innovation and a first-class workforce," White said in a written statement.