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Branches of bank sprout Sabal

Soon after Synovus bought United Bank of St. Petersburg four months ago, it discovered that key units in United's operation didn't want to become part of the Georgia bank.

Spurred by a desire to keep control local, the heads of the trust and investment management businesses of United Bank coordinated a buyout of their operations.

Terms of the all-stock deal, which closed June 30 and is to be announced later this week, were not disclosed.

Eleven of the 13 principals of United Trust and United's EPW Investment Management are part of the newly formed Sabal Trust and Sabal Investment Management.

"The Sabal palm is the state tree, and we kind of liked the Florida association," said Ward J. Curtis Jr., head of Sabal Trust and chairman and CEO of Sabal's parent company, Sabal Holdings. "We thought that was kind of a subtle way to talk about our Florida roots, so to speak."

Sabal starts out with 20 employees and $600-million in assets, including $400-million at Sabal Trust and $200-million at Sabal Investment Management. That makes it one of the largest locally owned trust and investment organizations in the Tampa Bay area.

Sabal Investment Management is headed by United veteran William Eickhoff, who is also president of Sabal Holdings.

Curtis said he and his fellow managers approached their new owners at Synovus shortly after the United acquisition closed Feb. 28. Their message: The success of United Trust and EPW had been driven in large part by its local ownership, a distinction that would be lost with an out-of-state parent.

Five locally prominent investors in the buyout, who have become outside directors of Sabal, are Craig Sher of Sembler Co.; Mark Mahaffey of the Mahaffey Co.; attorney Bob Willis; Ray Smith of Smith Fence; and retired banker Charles Lowe.

By October, Curtis said, Sabal plans to move from the United Bank headquarters to 8,000 square feet inside another downtown St. Petersburg bank landmark, the Bank of America Tower.

United Bank president Neil Savage said it is still undetermined what percentage of business is going with Sabal, but he downplayed the impact. Much of the exiting business, he said, involves handling back-office work for attorneys; there's "very little" retail trust business.

"Financially, it will have very little impact," Savage said. "Operationally, I think it'll take us a few weeks to get our staff to where it's full-fledged."

Synovus is dispatching a half-dozen employees to United to help with investment management, trust, financial planning and brokerage business.

Savage said there were no hard feelings because of the defection.

"They're good people and we wish them well," he said. "I think it's just a decision that they wanted to zig and we wanted to zag."

_ Jeff Harrington can be reached at or (813) 226-3407.