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Bank bringing pep talks to state

First Union's executives are touring its East Coast branches to boost worker morale and confidence.

After issuing a contrite message to Wall Street this month, First Union's Ed Crutchfield is seeking to rally employees and raise confidence inside the company.

The First Union chief executive and his new heir apparent, Ken Thompson, started employee meetings in last week in Charlotte, where the bank has its headquarters, and will continue throughout the major cities of the bank's East Coast network.

Next week they come to Florida for meetings in Jacksonville, Miami and Orlando, a bank spokeswoman said. Other meetings are being scheduled.

According to employee reports, Crutchfield has peppered speeches with a dose of media and analyst bashing and has sought to lay out the company's strategy for remaking itself as part Merrill Lynch, part traditional bank.

First Union, the nation's sixth-largest bank and Florida's second-largest, is having one of its rockiest years. It laid off 7 percent of its work force this year and then stunned Wall Street with its second profit warning of 1999 in May. The bank has alienated customers by attempting to wean them from face-to-face branch service and redirect them to telephones and technological channels.

Some employees say morale is bad and Crutchfield owed them an explanation.

"I think they lost focus, at least in the bank, on the customer," said analyst David Stumpf of A.G. Edwards & Sons. "They've got to repair damage and . . . they've got to get the employees feeling good about things so that image comes through to the customers."

First Union employs 11,000 in Florida, including 900 in the Tampa Bay area.

Thompson, who oversees First Union's Wall Street-style securities division, will succeed president John Georgius at the end of the year.

On a day when many large bank stocks posted big gains, First Union rose only 31\ cents Friday to $41.93}. J.P. Morgan jumped $6.25 to $133.75; Chase Manhattan was up $3.43} to $79.12{ and Bank of America rose $2.06\ to $62.68}.

_ Information from Times files was used in this report.