Sunday, January 28, 2001

What's the Buzz?

Execs with local roots brought banks together

        Two executives who grew up on Cincinnati's west side — a Panther and a Mustang — teamed up to bring Fifth Third Bancorp and Old Kent Financial Corp. together.

        Talks between Fifth Third president and chief executive officer George A. Schaefer Jr. and Old Kent Chairman David J. Wagner actually began a few weeks before Cincinnati's Fifth Third agreed to shell out $4.75 billion in stock to acquire Old Kent of Grand Rapids, Mich.

        Mr. Schaefer, 55, an Elder High School graduate, and Mr. Wagner, 46, a Western Hills High School graduate, started informal discussions in early October. Those talks got serious in November when a merger was agreed to, according to regulatory filings.

        Some on Wall Street even speculate that Mr. Wagner was among the key reasons that Fifth Third paid such a hefty price for Old Kent.

        The deal, expected to close in June, will make Fifth Third the nation's 15th largest bank with assets of about $70 billion and nearly 1,000 branches, mainly in the Midwest. But it also will give Fifth Third vibrant blood such as Mr. Wagner to help run the highly regarded bank. Fifth Third has no comment on such talk, but analysts seem bullish on Mr. Wagner, as they say his management style blends well with Fifth Third's aggressive sales, yet low-risk credit culture.

        “Some say Fifth Third don't have a lot of depth in their management, so Old Kent will give them some more good lieutenants,” said Fred Cummings of McDonald Investments in Cleveland.

        Fifth Third is moving quickly to close the merger. Among the steps it's implementing:

        • A private jet has been leased at Lunken Airport to shuttle executives and managers at Fifth Third to Grand Rapids three days a week. This started last week and will continue through September.

        Print, radio, TV and direct-mail advertising in such places as Chicago, Detroit, Grand Rapids and Traverse City, Mich., introducing Fifth Third's logo and pushing some of its products. (For example, Old Kent does not offer free-checking accounts, but Fifth Third does.)

        • Brad Stamper, now head of Fifth Third operations in northwestern Indiana, has been named president of the combined banks in the Chicago area. And Pat Fehring, now running Fifth Third's Columbus bank, will run the merged company's Detroit affiliate.

Jeff McKinney

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