Mack I. Whittle Jr. is one of those rare bankers who accepts a dose of risk as part of doing business.
Ten years ago, Mr. Whittle left a comfortable post at a predecessor of NationsBank Corp. to create a new bank, Carolina First Corp., in Greenville, S.C. In a decade, his bank has amassed $1.5 billion of assets and captured 4% of the state's market share.
As the traditional bank has flourished, Mr. Whittle has been on the lookout for new opportunities. He and his bank have made their name by staking out ownership positions in high-technology companies, exploring a frontier where few bankers dare to tread.
Carolina First owns 18% of Affinity Technology Group, a maker of automated lending technology. It also stands to own 40% of the nation's second Internet-based bank, the Atlanta Internet Bank, which opened last fall under Carolina First's auspices but is to be spun off this year.
For Mr. Whittle, nurturing start-ups is both a pet interest and a strategic gambit: He enjoys deal-making as much as banking.
"One of the biggest obstacles for the industry is bankers' inability to embrace change," said Mr. Whittle, 48. "Some of us will not survive if we're not willing to embrace that change."
For most community bankers, changes in retail delivery and the need to invest in technology are perplexing problems. A handful of community banks have embraced the Internet, telephone banking, and other remote channels in a big way, but most are still mapping strategies in the boardroom.
Mr. Whittle's approach has been to gain toeholds in the new world of banking by seeking out partnerships with technology firms. Carolina First agrees to try their products - with minimal up-front costs - and receives shares of the company in return.
"It's not like we have to go spend millions of dollars to try something that may or may not work," Mr. Whittle said. "In the case of Affinity, we spent zero dollars and created something worth $100 million and that we're able to install throughout our company."
Carolina First was one of the first banks to use Affinity's automated loan machines. This quarter, the bank plans to install the terminals in South Carolina auto dealerships, where they will be used to issue instant car loans.
Working on the cutting edge can cut both ways. When Affinity went public last year, it awarded Mr. Whittle and two other bank officers shares of stock worth millions of dollars (the amount has fluctuated with the company's market value). Eyebrows were raised, and three Carolina First shareholders sued the bank and its officers, arguing that the bank itself did not profit from the windfall.
Mr. Whittle termed the lawsuit "frivolous." He said: "It has no basis."
Affinity executives refused to comment for this story. But an analyst who follows Carolina First, John B. Moore of Morgan Keegan & Co., called the litigation a "nuisance suit" and said the relationship to Affinity unquestionably has been a benefit to the bank.
Mr. Moore praised Mr. Whittle's approach of building a solid banking platform and adorning it with extras.
"Mack has successfully gained business from the banks that are dominant in that state - Wachovia, NationsBank, First Union - and he has proved, at least in these markets, that a super community bank can work," said Mr. Moore, whose firm is in Memphis.
"Where does he go next? He is willing to look at some other areas of banking and where banking is going, and Affinity and the Atlanta Internet bank are good examples of that."
Vernon C. Plack, an analyst with Scott & Stringfellow in Richmond, Va., agreed: "Mack Whittle has taken the initiative in areas where, quite frankly, you don't usually see bankers take a stand."
Carolina First itself has entrepreneurial origins. It was born on Dec. 19, 1986, with proceeds from a $17 million initial public offering.
Mr. Whittle's previous career had been with Bankers Trust of South Carolina, where he worked for nearly 20 years and rose to a regional supervisory post, handling commercial retail business for a large chunk of the state.
But Bankers Trust of South Carolina was acquired by NationsBank's predecessor, NCNB Corp., and Mr. Whittle began to bristle at large, out-of- state banks "gobbling up" home-grown South Carolina ones. One day he met with 20 business leaders in Greenville - located about halfway between Charlotte, N.C., and Atlanta - to propose opening a locally owned and operated bank.
"They said if I was willing to start it, they'd be willing to invest their money," Mr. Whittle recalled.
Seven months later, the bank opened its main office - symbolically enough, in a branch that had closed after an acquisition. A year later, Carolina First moved to its current headquarters in a historic building in downtown Greenville, once home to the area's first nationally chartered bank.
With 150,000 customers and new branches opening in places like Hilton Head Island, the bank has busied itself with snatching bits of business from larger rivals.
"Whenever the trauma of a merger was actually taking place, customers and employees would feel like they were being disenfranchised," Mr. Whittle said. "We were able to offer some stability in the marketplace, to attract good employees and good bank customers."
Trusting operations and technology details to his top officers, Mr. Whittle has focused on the strengths he brought with him: building market share and developing banking relationships with local companies.
"We wanted to be the bank that represented most of South Carolina," Mr. Whittle said. "We didn't want to have our decisions made at some remote location, where a lot of the real benefit of what the customer was bringing would get lost in the translation. Credit was more than just crunching the numbers and looking at the ratios, it was the people and the markets."
Carolina First offers almost all the same products and services as the superregionals. It has an international area, a trust department, and credit cards. Brokerage services are limited, but Mr. Whittle anticipates they will grow.
Analysts say Mr. Whittle has done a good job building a strong base and that his goal of reaching 5% market share in South Carolina in a year or two should be within reach.
Mr. Moore described Mr. Whittle as "very aggressive, very much an entrepreneur," but added, "he's also a very good banker, and that's evidenced by their credit quality and the lack of any credit problems they've had over the years.
"In my mind, he's built an infrastructure that can support a much larger company."
Even so, performance is a nagging issue. Mr. Moore and other analysts noted that Carolina First falls below peer averages in return on assets and return on equity, and that its efficiency ratio, 65.88%, is too high for comfort.
"I'm hoping that they're entering a phase now where there is less emphasis on increasing the franchise and more on improving the profitability," said David M. West of Davenport & Co., a Richmond, Va.- based brokerage.
Mr. West attributed the disappointing performance figures to growing pains associated with the bank's youth. He said there were signs of improvement and praised the bank's "operating environment."
"They can use the image of being perceived as the local hometown bank," he said. "They've been successful in attracting loan business that way."
Last year, Carolina First sold five of its branches to a de novo, Bank of Barnwell County. But Mr. Whittle said the move did not signal a retreat from branch banking and pointed to the numerous ribbon-cuttings planned for this year: Carolina First will open traditional branches, supermarket branches, and "workplace" branches in individual companies.
"We think branches are still going to be needed and used, but we see that people are demanding more access to all of their financial resources - whether it be the daily evaluation of what their 401(k) account is worth, or writing a check on their Internet bank on Sunday afternoon," Mr. Whittle said.
"Convenience is being demanded by the consumer - especially as the customer base grows younger - and cost-cutting is being demanded by the bank, if it's going to be a survivor."
Though Mr. Whittle admits he doesn't have the patience to figure out how to work the personal computer he keeps at home, he does purport to understand the power technology can bring to retail banking.
One manifestation of his belief is Carolina First's decision to become the "host" of the Atlanta Internet Bank, which opened in December and now has about 1,000 accounts. Mr. Whittle viewed the investment as an entree both to Internet banking and the Atlanta market.
"We see the evolution of this new delivery system taking a lot of different steps," he said. "We think Internet banking probably is the farthest out at this stage, with phone banking and grocery store banking and workplace banking being other means of providing service at a lesser cost to the bank, and greater convenience to the consumer."
Take automated loan machines made by Affinity, he said. Booking a loan by conventional means costs the bank $150 and can only be done during branch hours. Booking a loan by machine can be done at any time and costs the bank $30, he said.
Some people question whether the newfangled access methods will catch on, but Mr. Whittle is confident. "We're a lot more technologically advanced today than we were when the ATM first came out 20 years ago, and the next learning curve will be substantially shorter."
With two deals under his belt, Mr. Whittle is actively reviewing other start-ups, scoping out companies whose products can be of use to the bank. He has looked at smart cards and electronic cash schemes. More immediate plans are to introduce technology that will consolidate customer statements.