By Robert Salvo

You’ve likely noticed the striking blue and yellow signage around the Lowcountry for South State Bank. Although these changes in visuals made the company appear to come out of nowhere, the institution is actually a familiar one with deep Southern roots. The consolidation of six formerly distinct brands, the Lowcountry foundation for South State was built upon South Carolina Bank and Trust, long known around the Holy City as First Federal of Charleston.

First Federal was founded in 1934; while the Great Depression gripped the whole nation, Charleston was still in the doldrums of multigenerational decline, a small town living in the shell of a once-thriving city. The collapse of financing for construction was keenly felt and Charleston was in a housing crunch. This problem was viewed as an opportunity — a possibility for growth, expansion and employment in the building trades — in the eyes of a young entrepreneur named Mary Horres. She went to lawyer and World War I hero Buist Rivers to discuss the matter; Rivers agreed with her assessment and the two began to strategize a way forward.

While waiting on an appointment one afternoon, Horres picked up a copy of the Congressional Record lying on a table in the waiting era. Surreptitiously, she found the Homeowners Loan Act of 1933. As she read more about the then-obscure program she realized it was just the thing she and Rivers were seeking. It authorized the regulation of savings and loan institutions, offering three dollars of federal money for every dollar of private money invested in the bank.

Horres wasted no time in pursuing the program: She contacted a federal field representative who happened to be travelling through the area on his way to Florida and outlined her case. Soon a representative was sent to Charleston and in short order the green light was given to proceed. A sum of $50,000 had to be pledged for the new savings and loan, of which a tenth had to be cash. While dozens of people pledged, including many local luminaries, raising the $5,000 cash was a hard-fought affair.

Eventually the money was raised and the First Federal Savings and Loan opened its doors at 29 Broad St. Soon it was lending money to an impoverished city. Despite a slow start, within a year First Federal was on its way and could pay a modest dividend to its investors.

South State came from similar Depression-era roots. The same year Mary Horres was fighting to restore the flow of financing in the Holy City, seven gentlemen came together in Orangeburg to found the First National Bank. The crash had left the city without any bank at all and while many potential investors remained wary, the young institution was able to raise $100,000 at the time of its founding.

The First National Bank of Orangeburg

The First National Bank of Orangeburg

Institutional growth came slowly. First National’s first merger didn’t occur until 1956, when they joined with a bank in nearby Cameron. A similar merger soon followed with First National of St. George. The 1970s and 80s were a time of deliberate and steady growth, affirming First National’s long-held policy of making sure the bankers are a quality fit before jumping into a new location.

Most of these new branches were located in rural communities around the Palmetto State’s coastal plain, but starting in the 1990s First National began a new period of growth, actively seeking a presence in South Carolina’s largest cities. Company headquarters moved to Columbia and the bank expanded into the Upstate, Beaufort, Hilton Head and the Grand Strand. To better positioning itself as a statewide entity, the bank changed its name to SCBT in 2002.

While First National/SCBT was spreading through the state, First Federal remained focused on its Charleston-area roots. Like Charleston itself, the bank experienced rapid growth in the post-World War II era. In 1954 it built a new location in West Ashley, S.C.’s first branch office of a savings and loan. The 1960s brought the first computerization and an expansion into the North Area. A decade later the bank would have offices in Summerville, James Island, Goose Creek and Mt. Pleasant. Throughout the era, the bank focused on its core strength of home loans, helping fuel the growth of a rapidly expanding Lowcountry.

First Federal executives in the newly-remodeled
 Broad Street office, 1960s. 

 

In the new millennium, First Federal consolidated with Peoples Federal and had branches all across the S.C. coast. By positioning branches inside Wal-Marts, the bank tapped into a massive client base that, by 2005, accounted for more than 40 percent of new deposit accounts.

In the winter of 2013, First Federal and SCBT announced a merger of their institutions, together valued at $8.3 billion. As with past mergers, the message from clients was clear: “We don’t care what you call yourself, just don’t change our banker!”

This expanded SCBT was a byproduct of smart growth during the financial downturn of the 2000s. At the same time SCBT was acquiring banks in North Carolina in 2007 (as North Carolina Bank and Trust), regional powerhouse Wachovia was collapsing. Thanks to a conservative corporate culture, SCBT was well positioned for the downturn and has been able to move forward as not just a statewide, but a regional bank network.

Prior to the First Federal-SCBT merger, SCBT had acquired not just NCBT but a number of banks in northeastern and coastal Georgia. Only similar institutions that had demonstrated years of dependability and sound practice were brought into the company; as a result SCBT never failed to show a quarterly profit throughout the financial crisis.

The Community Bank and Trust of Cornelia, Georgia, one of the oldest financial institutions in the region.

 

It’s also positioned the company well for future growth under its new name, South State Bank. “South State Bank is the result of community banks, with rich histories and shared values, coming together to create one strong regional bank rooted in the South. By staying true to our values of relationship banking and commitment to our customers, we’re proud to have grown from serving the needs of one small community to helping businesses and individuals throughout the region,” says Robert R. Hill, CEO of South State. “Thanks to our dedicated team of bankers, we have faithfully executed our mission to build a high-performing bank based on a balance of soundness, profitability and growth,” he continues. The institution a young Mary Horres envisioned for a Depression-racked Charleston eight decades ago is now helping people across the Carolinas and Georgia pursue their financial goals.

 

For more on the history behind South State Bank's historic 46 Broad Street office in Downtown Charleston, click here to read Peg Eastman's December 2014 column.

Mercury newspaper racks are located at the following locations:

The Meeting Street Inn

Clair's Service Station at 334 Folly Rd.

Harris Teeter on Houston-Northcutt Blvd.

The Square Onion in I'On

Mt. Pleasant Library on Mathis Ferry Rd.