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Ex-SunTrust workers find comfort zone in smaller banks

(ran North, South edition)

It started slowly _ a few in 2002, a few in 2003.

The North Suncoast's oldest bank, SunTrust Bank/Nature Coast, has been bleeding longtime employees. Many of them retired. And many ended up at several community banks that have sprouted throughout Hernando County.

The level of turnover at one of America's largest commercial banks isn't all that unusual, given the level of consolidation in the industry and restructuring at SunTrust Bank in particular, banking executives say. The 20 or so employees that have left or retired from SunTrust/Nature Coast, over the past two years comprise less than 4 percent of the bank's local staff, which also serves Pasco, Citrus and Sumter counties.

But what is telling is the level of experience and talent that has moved on. Several left key upper and middle management positions, including a president and a few senior vice presidents.

Morris Porton, Bob Barnett, Earl Young and David Alberson all had 10 to 30 years of experience before leaving or retiring from SunTrust, only to pop back up at other banks.

Capital City Bank recruited six SunTrust employees, although one has recently left. Community National Bank and Cortez Community Bank each got three. Meanwhile, another four longtime SunTrust employees retired from banking altogether.

Former SunTrust employees say they left voluntarily, mainly because the bank had grown too big and too corporate for their tastes. But several admit they left because their jobs at SunTrust had changed dramatically.

SunTrust has basically been cleaning house, reviewing long-time employees who are not meeting the company's standards and replacing them with more energetic sales talents, reported Hoefer & Arnett financial analyst Richard Bove in an August report.

"The company agreed that this was not as voluntary as people say it is," Bove said. "When you're offered a position that is less prestigious, there's a possibility that you would view it as something less than a voluntary leaving of the company."

SunTrust Bank/Nature Coast Chairman and chief executive Jim Kimbrough says that such retirements and defections have not affected SunTrust's bottom line. The bank replaced most of those employees and continued to grow over the past year without opening new branches.

As of June 2003, SunTrust claimed 46 percent of Hernando County's market share, more than double its largest competitor, Bank of America, which had 20 percent, according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.

"You hate to lose people who have left after working with us for several years, numbers of years, but that's life," Kimbrough said. "Our business continues to grow strong. And their departures have given us a great opportunity to offer employment opportunities to people who have been wanting to work for us."

What is now SunTrust/Nature Coast started out as a tiny community bank, which J.A. Jennings founded in 1905. The McKethan family bought it soon after.

Kimbrough's father-in-law Alfred McKethan ran the bank, then called Hernando State Bank, for several decades. McKethan sold the bank in the 1980s and through several waves of mergers and consolidations, the bank became part of SunTrust Banks Inc., which is based in Atlanta.

But the big changes hit in 2000, when SunTrust Banks Inc. chief executive Phil Humann dissolved 26 local bank charters, including SunTrust/Nature Coast, and rolled them into a single state charter based in Georgia.

For years, most of SunTrust/Nature Coast's banking decisions were made locally, although it reported to Orlando.

But, the consolidation brought an extra level of bureaucracy between Brooksville and headquarters in Atlanta. SunTrust/Nature Coast now works as a market within the SunTrust Tampa Region. Kimbrough reports to Tampa and is vice chairman of the "Tampa Region."

Tampa reports to SunTrust Florida headquarters in Orlando, which in turn reports to Atlanta.

When Humann centralized operations at SunTrust, jobs were duplicated. SunTrust moved to streamline those positions and restructure personnel, Kimbrough and former employees said.

SunTrust cut jobs in operations and administration while adding positions in retail and sales.

In 2003, several longtime employees like Barnett, then an executive vice president, found their job didn't exist anymore.

Barnett, who worked with SunTrust for 26 years _ 18 years in Hernando _ was offered a position in trust business development sales.

"I decided the goal they had set for that position could not be accomplished in the limited area they had given me to serve, so I opted for retirement," said Barnett, who retired from SunTrust on March 31, 2003 and went to work as a senior vice president with Capital City Bank three months later.

Kimbrough doesn't consider the cuts in operations "attrition," since jobs were added in retail and sales. Overall, a handful of positions were cut, Kimbrough said.

"Realignment or restructuring is the word I use, and the total restructuring is done by most of us in this business to enable ourselves to remain competitive," Kimbrough said. "Some people adopt to change better than others."

But the changes created other problems, several former employees said. Existing staff, at least in operations, faced a bigger workload, making it a tougher place to work.

"They added more job responsibilities to middle managers in the office areas, and it became very stressful, extremely stressful in some situations," said Kathy Whitman, who left in April after a 19-year career at SunTrust.

She now works as an executive administrative assistant at Capital City Bank, which is based in Tallahassee.

Whitman said she loved working for SunTrust and was well compensated but missed the cozier atmosphere and less time-consuming workload of a community bank.

Another reason several in upper management say they left for smaller institutions was to recapture the feeling that their work helped steer a bank.

While SunTrust Bank/Nature Coast is fairly significant to the Tampa Region, and accounts for $1.9-billion of the Tampa Region's $5.2-billion deposits, in the grand scheme of SunTrust Bank, the Nature Coast is small potatoes. The entire Florida Group has $28.7-billion in deposits and 422 branches, according to SunTrust's 2003 annual report.

"At a bank I'm at now, I think what I do makes a difference, and at larger organizations, you don't feel like you make a difference, because you're a small part of a much larger picture," said Morris Porton who left SunTrust in 2002 to head up Zephyrhills-based Community National Bank's foray into Hernando County.

Timing also has been a factor in SunTrust turnover, said several business leaders and former SunTrust employees. SunTrust's restructuring coincided with a rise in the number of smaller banks entering Hernando County, following the county's growth and housing boom.

County growth has fostered a plethora of new opportunities at smaller newcomers like Kensington Bank, Community National Bank and Cortez Community.

"New community banks are going to be wanting people who have experience in the community, so SunTrust employees would probably be very desireable people who know the lay of the land," said Mike McHugh, director of the county Office of Business Development.

SunTrust has not finished cutting jobs, said analyst Bove. The corporation is in the midst of acquiring another major bank, National Commerce Financial, based in Memphis, Tenn., which is going to cost SunTrust about $245-million in pretax earnings, the company has reported.

"It's going to continue, because they're going to have to save costs in some fashion, and the way you cut costs is to get rid of people or cut positions," Bove said.

Jennifer Liberto can be reached at (352)848-1434 or