2013 business news: TARP payoff, St. Francis expansion top news

tadams@ledger-enquirer.comDecember 28, 2013 

The hometown bank finally pulling itself back from the brink of financial calamity.

A hospital putting finishing touches on a multimillion-dollar expansion with the openings of brand new heart and women's health facilities.

And a global credit-card processing machine making the largest purchase in its history.

Those three dramatic, high-dollar developments were at the top of the Columbus-area business stories covered this year by the Ledger-Enquirer. There also were real-estate deals, job creation, business sales and the return of the Twinkie to national fanfare.

Here are our Top 10 business stories of 2013:

1. Synovus pays back TARP

It was a financial albatross on the back of Synovus Financial Corp. since December 2008, weighing down the company's attempt to recover from a mountain of loan losses incurred from the U.S. banking and housing crises.

But, in July, as the parent company of Columbus Bank and Trust repaid the $968 million it owed the federal government's Troubled Asset Relief Program, there was a

collective sigh of relief from Synovus management, employees and shareholders.

Kessel Stelling, the bank's chairman and chief executive officer, kept a steady hand throughout the ordeal, amid relentless speculation Synovus might be bought out or taken over by federal regulators.

"I said to our team over and over, 'All we need to do is execute, and it will take care of itself,' " the CEO said in July as TARP was paid back. "You can't respond to rumors and you can't really respond every time somebody says something that you don't like. Let's just execute our plan, and today will come, and it did."

Now the Southeast regional bank is looking to rebuild its profits to healthy levels once again. And it came just in time, with the company celebrating its 125th anniversary in October.

2. St. Francis opens Heart, Women's hospitals

It doesn't pack quite the financial impact of a nearly $1 billion transaction, but the completion by St. Francis Hospital of its campus expansion transcends mere dollars. It promises to be a human life-saver, and improve treatment and outcomes for Columbus-area patients.

The hospital put the finishing touches this year on the $110 million expansion of its Manchester Expressway campus, capping it off with the openings of a brand new Heart Hospital and Women's Hospital. With the latter came a baby delivery department, the first since 1981 for St. Francis.

"The community and the board have provided the resources," said St. Francis President and CEO Robert Granger at the Women's Hospital grand opening in October. "The leadership has been put in place. The doctors are here. The nurses are here. Now we've got to deliver. And we've got to work hard and do the right stuff and take care of people the way they expect it, and do it every day, all the time."

The icing on the cake for the hospital came in November, when it announced a partnership with the Mayo Clinic as a part of its care network, giving doctors and patients access to world-class expertise.

3. TSYS seals its largest deal

The deal was unveiled in February, but it was in July that credit-card processor TSYS finalized its $1.4 billion acquisition of NetSpend Holdings. It was the largest purchase by the Columbus-based company in its 30-year history.

Phil Tomlinson, TSYS chairman and CEO, called the buyout of the Austin, Texas-based prepaid card firm "transformational" for his own company. TSYS, always looking for ways to diversify its core credit-card processing business, is banking heavily on a trend toward more consumers using pre-loaded cards instead of banks.

"It's going to be one of those watershed events long term," the CEO said. "We expect this business to grow at a 20 percent-plus rate over the next four years. We think it's a high-growth market."

Data released by the company indicate there are 68 million consumers in the U.S. who need alternatives to storing and spending their money, with NetSpend at just over 2.4 million accounts.

4. Blue Cross Blue Shield expands

It was in September that Blue Cross Blue Shield of Georgia confirmed it would be expanding into Muscogee Technology Park on the city's northeast side to support its addition of 600 jobs in Columbus. The move into the new office space came in October, with its Warm Springs Road complex already brimming with staffers.

The job creation became necessary with Blue Cross Blue Shield gearing up for a surge in business brought on by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. The law requires every American to have health insurance or face a financial penalty.

5. Twinkies are back at Dolly Madison plant

It took a local government cash incentive of $1 million to land Hostess Brands LLC and a projected 400 jobs after the Dolly Madison plant on Victory Drive in Columbus was bought out of U.S. bankruptcy court in the spring. The bakery had been closed since November 2012.

By July, the maker of Twinkies and other sweet snack cakes had the Columbus plant up and running again, with the quick revival of the Hostess branded cakes generating considerable media hype and consumer buzz across the nation.

6. Phenix City projects pick up steam

It was the launch of transformation for downtown Phenix City, with three major projects kicking off on or near the Chattahoochee River. Columbus-based W.C. Bradley Co. purchased Phenix Plaza for $4.5 million with plans to upgrade the shopping center as the whitewater course nearby gains popularity among recreational users.

The redevelopment of the area across from downtown Columbus also features a $10 million Troy University campus and a $12 million, 99-room Courtyard Marriott hotel, with both of those projects now under way. The city also plans to construct a parking garage to handle the additional vehicle traffic expected in the area.

7. 'Old Town' development under way

After nearly a decade of planning and preparation, a 280-acre mixed-use community called "Old Town" began coming out of the ground near the northwest intersection of Veterans Parkway and Williams Road in north Columbus.

The Woodruff Co., a real-estate development and property management company based in Columbus, launched construction in earnest in July, promising single-family homes, apartments, office and commercial space, complete with a town hall, chapel, walking trails and playgrounds. The development also is certain to increase traffic in an area of town that already is very congested.

8. New names, brands for Columbus Regional

Columbus Regional Healthcare System, with the launch of its new "corporate identity" in September, said in October it was changing or altering the names of its three hospitals and replacing the tagline it has used for years. The Medical Center became Midtown Medical Center, Hughston Hospital is now Northside Medical Center, and Doctors Hospital was changed to Doctors Specialty Hospital, with new signage planned.

The system also adopted the slogan, "Pursue Your Healthy," a reference to a new focus on helping residents in the area live healthier lives and minimize the need for costly hospitalization. It also dropped a few words from its name, now referred to as Columbus Regional Health.

9. Jay Automotive going, going, gone

It was a deal several months in the making, but in early December, Jay Automotive Group was sold to Houston, Texas-based Group 1 Automotive, a large national publicly traded company with deep pockets. It marked the end of owner Jay Stelzenmuller's 30-year ride as a Columbus auto dealer.

Group 1 takes over the auto mall on Whittlesey Road, giving it the brands of Toyota, Mazda, Buick-GMC, Subaru, Scion and Volvo, as well as a collision center. It estimates the combined operation -- now under the umbrellas name, "Rivertown" -- will generate $150 million in annual sales. Group 1 purchased Rivertown Ford in Columbus a year earlier from longtime auto dealer Richard Stephens.

10. New owner for Cross Country Plaza

It's the oldest shopping center in Columbus, having made its debut in 1957, and in June Cross Country Plaza got a new owner. Atlanta-based Coro Realty Advisors plunked down $36.6 million for the 368,360-square-foot property on Macon Road.

It bought Cross Country from Atlanta and Charlotte, N.C.-based Glenwood Development, which had owned it since 2004, purchasing the center then for $20.8 million from a New York investment fund. Glenwood pumped roughly $10 million into a renovation in 2012, while Coro Realty said it has plans to upgrade the Midtown Columbus property even more.

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