The newest bankers in town are looking to put down roots — roots they intend to cultivate through managed, controlled growth.
United Community Bank, headquartered in Blairsville, Ga., entered the S.C. market with its $240.5 million acquisition of Greenville-based Palmetto Bank in 2015. It branched out into Charleston with the acquisition of Mount Pleasant-based Tidelands Bancshares Inc. in 2016 and continued up the coast with its 2017 merger with Myrtle Beach-headquartered Horry County State Bank.
Now, the bank, with $12.7 billion in assets and 149 offices in South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee is putting together its Midlands leadership team while shopping for a permanent Columbia location.
“You look around, and there’s a big hole in the middle (of the state),” said Dixon Woodward, state president for South Carolina and coastal Georgia. “That was really something we needed to solve.”
United Community Bank is temporarily housed in the Meridian Building on Main Street, steps from several industry institutions including big banks such as Synovus and Wells Fargo and smaller competitors such as Optus.
“Our size and our culture are advantages,” Woodward said. “We’re big enough to do anything that the larger banks can do, with a healthy, robust balance sheet, and we’re small enough and nimble enough to do it in a way that people don’t have to hate us for it.
“It can be a challenging thing dealing with banks and all the requirements and things like that, so we feel like speed is a huge advantage for us.”
Shannon Stephens, named the bank’s Midlands president last month, said United Community Bank will be the Columbia area’s “one-stop shop” for retail and commercial banking, small business services, mortgage lending and investment banking.
“I’ve been in different markets and seen (growth) coming, and I’ve seen what works and doesn’t work,” said Stephens, a Chapin native and graduate of Francis Marion University and the South Carolina Bankers School who has led various regional banking teams in his 18-year career. “I’ve taken those experiences and knowledge that I have to be able to say, ‘This is my vision.’ ”
That vision includes a downtown presence with an eye toward expansion and an emphasis on community involvement. Woodward said the bank’s acquisitional habits may well continue — if it makes good business sense.
“It’s got to fit, and it’s got to be a cultural fit, which is real important. If the cultures don’t match, it creates all types of problems,” Woodward said. “ … We’ll continue looking at various opportunities that may be available, but it’s not necessary for us to continue to do what we’re doing. We’d love to be able to find something that had presence here in Columbia or was based here, and there’s opportunities out there. We’re always looking, but at the end of the day, we’re also comfortable with the idea that if we need to build out the market organically, we can certainly do so. We’ve got the right people to do it.”
Those people also include Austin McVay and Michael Glenn, both of whom have the title of vice president and commercial relationship manager. McVay is a graduate of Clemson University and Glenn of The Citadel.
“I am glad to have Austin and Michael beside me,” said Stephens, who said the bank also has an executive assistant in place and will hire credit analysts soon, along with a branch manager and retail staff once a permanent location is established. “ … We certainly want to grow the right way, with the right clientele, the right employees, the right people, but also to be strategic about it.”
United Community Bank has been ranked highly by J.D. Power among Southeast banks in customer satisfaction for the past five years and included on Forbes’ list of 100 Best Banks in America for six straight years. It achieved a ranking of 45th in 2019.
“This is a bank that truly focuses on local decision-making and has been awarded for top-quality customer service, year after year,” Stephens said.
United Community Bank has also made a point to establish a strong community presence in other regions, Woodward said. For instance, he said, the bank has been a title sponsor for Greenville's Ice on Main open-air ice rink for six years.
“We’ve got a really strong group of people with a good core value system, and we all share that core value of trying to do right by the people that we’re here to serve,” Woodward said. “You take care of your team and you take care of your patrons. It doesn’t have to be that complicated.”
A former resident of Hilton Head Island, Stephens has been back in Columbia for three years and is excited to capitalize on the regional growth he’s witnessed in that time.
“What Columbia has going on downtown, in West Columbia, Lexington … there’s just so much opportunity here,” he said. “Downtown — Devine (Street), Rosewood, Five Points, West Columbia — all the opportunity that’s here, along with the university that we have at our backdoor … I can see the opportunity (for) multifamily stuff downtown. There’s a huge opportunity, and we’re in the very beginning stages of it.”
This article first appeared in the Aug. 12 print edition of the Columbia Regional Business Report.