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UPDATE: Stelling takes CEO reins at Synovus, Anthony remains chairman

Nearly four months after being diagnosed with a rare and serious blood vessel disorder and embarking on medical leave, Richard Anthony has relinquished his position as CEO of Synovus Financial Corp.

Anthony remains chairman of the board, the Columbus-based regional banking firm said today. Kessel Stelling — acting chief executive officer since Anthony’s leave began June 21 — becomes the permanent CEO and president.

“We are grateful for the foundation Richard built during his tenure as CEO and are pleased to welcome him back as chairman,” James Yancey, a former Synovus chairman who had been acting chairman during Anthony’s medical leave, said in a statement.

“Kessel has demonstrated exceptional talent and leadership throughout his impressive career in the banking industry, and we’re fortunate to be able to name him to this key role,” Yancey said.

The move was approved by the board of directors at Synovus, which has been hammered by the 2008 housing market implosion that led to a national bank crisis and a severe recession that economists say officially ended about 14 months ago.

The company has posted several consecutive quarterly losses while working aggressively to dump non-performing real-estate loans from its books. Loan charge-offs now top $2 billion.

Anthony was not available for comment following the firm’s announcement of the executive reshuffling, Synovus spokesman Greg Hudgison said. But the former CEO, in a statement, expressed gratitude to the the firm’s board members for their support during his illness and said he looks forward to helping the company move out of its financial abyss.

“I am pleased with the progress of my recovery, but I believe it is a good time to make this transition,” he said. “There is no better leader than Kessel Stelling to take over the CEO responsibilities for Synovus as we continue to manage through this historic time for our company.”

Anthony has been in banking four decades, joining Synovus in 1992. He was promoted to CEO of the company in 2005 and chairman of the board the following year, replacing longtime chief executive Jim Blanchard both times.

In mid-June, Anthony was diagnosed with Wegener’s Syndrome. It’s a form of vasculitis that inflames blood vessels, restricting blood flow to key organs of the body, including the kidneys, lungs and the upper respiratory tract. He entered University of Alabama Medical Center in Birmingham for intensive treatment, recovering enough to return to his home in Columbus this summer.

Stelling, a native of Augusta, Ga., was promoted to president of Synovus in February after serving as a regional CEO in Atlanta since 2008. He will have his hands full with a company that oversees $32 billion in assets at banks scattered throughout Georgia, Alabama, Florida, South Carolina and Tennessee. Synovus employs about 6,400 companywide, more than 1,500 of those in Columbus.

The new president and CEO, in a brief interview today, said he is honored to be at the helm of the bank that started out of a textile mill overlooking the Chattahoochee River more than a century ago.

But the moment is “bittersweet,” knowing he is taking the job of a very close friend in Anthony, the person who convinced him to come to Columbus.

“The circumstances of his illness and leave cause it to be a little different type of emotion,” Stelling said. “But Richard, as he said to me, ‘I feel really good about it.’ He’s probably smiling more than I am today. But, certainly, I’m honored by the confidence of Richard and our board.”

Declining to go in depth about Anthony’s recovery from his illness, Stelling said he has been making good progress. He also has been a sounding board for the executive on several issues during his leave of absence.

“It’s a slow return,” the new CEO said. “But I think he’s encouraged by his progress, and sharp as a tack, I believe ... I think he would probably tell you his strength and stamina still has a little ways to go.”

With Synovus poised to deliver its third-quarter earnings report Oct. 25, Stelling said he’s confident the company’s employees and management can turn the wobbly ship around.

Aside from loan losses, which have been trending lower in recent quarters, the banking firm has several other issues on its plate. They include repaying $968 million the company received from the sale of preferred stock to the U.S. government through the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP).

Synovus also is looking to recover some of the millions of dollars of its own money loaned to Sea Island Co., a coastal Georgia resort that filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in August. Media reports today indicate wealthy businessman Wayne Huizenga, who once owned the Miami Dolphins, has bought one of the resort’s golf developments, Frederica Club, in St. Simons, Ga.

Under Anthony’s stewardship, Synovus raised more than $1 billion from sales of stock and other securities earlier this year, Stelling noted. The company also completed an efficiency move, consolidating its 30 separate bank charters into one.

“I think people are upbeat,” Stelling said of the Synovus work force. “This company is made up of a bunch of winners who for a long time have measured success by profitability. And they’re very committed to getting right back to that. We sometimes refer to it as an obsession here. We know that this company needs to get profitable sooner rather than later.”

Shares of Synovus (Ticker: SNV) fell 5 cents, or 1.9 percent, to $2.58 in trading today on the New York Stock Exchange. The company’s stock is trading in a 52-week range of $1.45 to $3.92 per share.

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