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S.C. bank to buy Mercantile parent

Gulf West Banks Inc. of St. Petersburg, parent of Mercantile Bank, has agreed to a $115-million takeover by a South Carolina bank.

South Financial Group of Greenville, S.C., signed a definitive agreement Thursday to acquire Gulf West, which operates 15 branches in the Tampa Bay area through Mercantile Bank and has assets of approximately $516-million. Scheduled to be completed in the fall, the purchase will give South Financial total assets of $6.5-billion, including $1.3-billion in Florida.

"The Tampa market is one of the fastest growing in the nation," South Financial chief executive Mack Whittle said.

Jefferson Harralson, an analyst with Keefe, Bruyette & Woods in New York, said the deal adds a strong market for South Financial. Because of heavy merger activity in the Tampa area over the past few years, Mercantile is one of the few remaining well-performing independents left, Harralson said.

Gulf West Banks reported a record 43 percent increase in earnings for the year ended Dec. 31. Net income came to $5-million, or 63 cents a share.

South Financial is the parent of Carolina First Bank and is South Carolina's largest state-based bank. The company reported net income last year of $41.9-million, or 98 cents a share.

Shares in South Financial closed up 8 cents Thursday at $19.88. Gulf West finished at $13.50 a share, up 20 cents. The deal was announced after the market closed.

_ Information from Times files was used in this report.