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Ex-Mercantile chief to open Pinellas bank

After a rare, lawsuit-triggered timeout, former Mercantile Bank chief executive Bob Blakley is ready to launch a bank.

Blakley on Wednesday filed an application with state regulators to form a community bank in St. Petersburg called Freedom Bank of America. He has lined up a nine-member board, secured a location just north of downtown and raised more than $3-million of a projected $12-million in startup capital, Blakley said.

Citing a trio of St. Petersburg banks sold in recent years _ Mercantile, United and Republic _ Blakley said, "We definitely see a need for more community banks to be around for the long term."

The news was a long time coming.

Blakley, 55, was president and CEO of Mercantile in 2002 when South Financial Group of South Carolina bought the bank. He then became Tampa Bay market president. In March 2003, South Financial took the unusual step of suing Blakley, accusing him of breaching a noncompete clause in his employment agreement by organizing a startup while a Mercantile employee.

South Financial alleged Blakley tried to hire Mercantile employees, met with at least six Mercantile customers to solicit their deposits and raised millions of dollars in commitments.

In an interview Wednesday, Blakley said he was only in "very early discussions" with others to gauge interest.

Nevertheless, he agreed to not compete with South Financial for a year and the suit was dropped.

The noncompete expired in May, Blakley said.

Ironically, Blakley's venture will be the second Freedom Bank under organization on Florida's West Coast this year. In July, organizers applied for a state charter for Freedom Bank in Bradenton.

John Pullen, financial administrator with the Florida Office of Financial Regulation, said it is up to the first of the two banks that receives its charter, not the state, if there is a challenge to using the name. The Freedoms may coexist, he said, if each is focused on serving their respective counties of Pinellas and Manatee.

Blakley will be chairman of Freedom Bank of America's board. Other board members include Steve Anderson, Fred Bickley, Brian Bunbury, Carlos Fernandez, Jim Montgomery, Price Schwenck, Bill Tapp and Pat Walsh. Fernandez, formerly of Signature Bank, will be chief financial officer and executive vice president. The board has pledged a combined $3.15-million.

In mid November, Freedom plans to ship an offering circular seeking up to 50 "partners" to invest up to $9-million.

Blakley refers to all investors as partners since the bank is being organized as an S corporation, in which all participants have an ownership stake and will receive distributions based on earnings. The setup, he said, runs counter to many banks, in which investors get a return only when an institution is sold.

"It's a strategy that ensures this bank will be around a much longer period of time," Blakley added. "It's not one being built to sell."

Freedom's first branch will be at 1200 Fourth St. N, tentatively opening in temporary quarters in April. Organizers are seeking a second Pinellas County location, which might open about the same time.

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

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