One of South Carolina's most influential bankers is retiring at the end of 2008, punctuating what has been a tumultuous year for the company he built over the past two decades.

Mack I. Whittle Jr., chairman, president and chief executive officer of The South Financial Group Inc., said he plans to remain a director of the Upstate-based bank owner until 2011, when his term expires.

"It has been my honor and my privilege to work with the many fine professionals at TSFG as well as our many customers and shareholders over the past two decades," Whittle said in a statement Tuesday. "I am confident that our strong management team is fully capable of moving our company forward."

The company, which owns Carolina First Bank, said it will conduct a nationwide search for his replacement.

John C.B. Smith, South Financial's lead independent director, said in statement Tuesday that the board "is grateful for Mack's dedication and his many contributions to this company and the communities that it serves."

It's been a trying year for Whittle and for investors of South Financial, which has been battered by sharp losses stemming primarily from troubled real estate loans it made in Florida.

The company's stock has skidded 72 percent over the past 12 months. Shares closed up Tuesday at $7.

In April, South Financial reported a staggering first-quarter loss of $201.3 million, compared to $20.5 million profit in the same period last year. The following month the company had to sell $250 million in preferred stock to shore up its balance sheet. Its second-quarter loss narrowed to $16.8 million.

Banking analyst Christopher Marinac, managing principal of the Atlanta-based financial research firm FIG Partners LLC, said the investment community "has been longing for a management change" at South Financial.

"I think Mack has fought that for some time," he said.

It's doubtful that Whittle's departure will lead to a sale of South Financial, said Marinac, who noted that the top priority for the next CEO will be "to execute on a growth plan."

Whittle, a University of South Carolina graduate, got his start in the industry in 1969 with Bankers Trust of South Carolina. He stepped out on his own in 1986 to form what would later become South Financial with about a dozen employees. He has been president and CEO ever since, adding the chairman's title in 2005.

The company is now the largest bank owner headquartered in South Carolina. It has more than $14 billion in assets and 180 branch offices in the Carolinas and Florida.

Locally, South Financial's Carolina First unit has seven branches in the three-county region. Three years ago the bank agreed to pay $2 million to win the naming rights for the new basketball arena being built at the College of Charleston.

Whittle's influence in the banking industry spilled over to numerous civic and business organizations. He served, for example, as chairman of USC's board of trustees and the S.C. Chamber of Commerce.

Contact John McDermott at 937-5572 or jmcdermott@postandcourier.com.