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Culverhouse sells off Sarasota thrift

Tampa Bay Buccaneers owner Hugh Culverhouse appears to have scored on his own with the announced sale of his Coast Bank in Sarasota.

On Wednesday, SunTrust Banks Inc. in Atlanta said it will buy Coast from Culverhouse for $70.3-million. The Tampa businessman and tax attorney who once counseled Richard Nixon and Bebe Rebozo bought Coast three years ago this month for about $60-million.

Since then, Coast has been privately run as part of Culverhouse's Palmer Financial Corp.

As part of the sale of Coast, Culverhouse will take full ownership of Palmer Ranch, which consists of about 10,000 prime acres in Sarasota County. Coast Bank was a half-owner with Culverhouse, who had first bought the ranch in 1970.

The Coast Bank deal, expected to be completed early next year, will give SunTrust an added $1.1-billion in assets and 28 locations in Sarasota County, as well as Charlotte, Flagler, Manatee and Volusia counties.

The deal doubles SunTrust's market share in Sarasota to 16 percent of deposits. It is one of the largest acquisitions in Florida in many years for SunTrust, a conservative Southeastern banking company that owns more than 20 banks under the SunBank name in Florida. It is the fourth-largest banking organization in the state.

Analysts said that under normal circumstances, SunTrust typically would try to expand by buying a commercial bank because of its strong ties to business and trust activities. But Coast, a savings bank that mostly handles home mortgage lending, is one of the few big financial institutions remaining on Florida's west coast.

"This does not sound like SunTrust's cup of tea, but they do seem to be interested in building up their presence in this part of the state," said analyst Fred Meinke of Raymond James & Associates.

Coast, established as a savings & loan in 1952, has been run since late 1990 by William Klich, who had served 18 years with Southeast Bank. Coast has about 300 employees.

SunTrust investor relations officer Jim Armstrong declined to comment on the fate of Coast's employees. But he indicated the bank anticipates "significant efficiencies," suggesting some of Coast's branches will be merged with existing SunBank offices in the area.

Earlier this year, SunTrust bought Florida West Coast Banks Inc., a Venice-based bank holding company with more than $384-million in assets.

Culverhouse, 73, is one of the nation's wealthiest individuals. Forbes magazine this month estimated his fortune at $360-million, up substantially from Forbes' 1991 estimate of $325-million.

In addition to the Bucs and Palmer Ranch _ which he is slowly developing _ Culverhouse owns citrus groves and housing developments.

With the sale of Coast, though, Culverhouse's role as an owner of a large Florida financial institution appears to be over _ for now. He could not be reached for comment on Wednesday.

Still, Culverhouse's plans to sell Coast Bank did not come as a big surprise.

Culverhouse and Coast became business partners in 1981 when the thrift, then known as Coast Federal Savings and Loan, paid $35-million to Culverhouse for a 50 percent stake in Palmer Ranch.

Culverhouse first offered to buy the thrift in 1987 and eventually took control in 1989. Several years ago, Culverhouse explained his interest in Coast was not as a bank but as a half-owner of Palmer Ranch, and indicated his plan was to sell the thrift.

The sale was put on hold for several years during hard times for the S&L industry.

"I thought Culverhouse might get tired of Coast," said analyst Sam Beebe of Robert W. Baird in Tampa. "Now, in a better market with fewer institutions to buy, he has the opportunity to flip it at what I assume is a nice profit."

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