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At a glance
First Financial Bank
Business: The subsidiary of First Financial Bancorp offers commercial, consumer, wealth management and mortgage products and services.
Founded: 1863
Headquarters: Cincinnati
Locations: 110, including 46 in Indiana
Employees: About 1,300, including 417 in Indiana
Assets: $6.3 billion*
Deposits: $4.7 billion, including $1.9 billion in Indiana*
2013 Earnings: $44.6 million*
* Data as of Sept. 30; First Financial Bank plans to report 2013 earnings the last week of January
Michelle Davies | The Journal Gazette
Al Roszczyk, left, is Indiana regional president and Claude Davis is CEO of First Financial Bank.

New bank grabbing talent

First Financial’s entry shakes up Tower-Old National plan

In the pin-striped, wing-tipped world of banking, there aren’t many surprises.

This, however, was a surprise.

Just weeks before Evansville-based Old National Bancorp is expected to close on its acquisition of Fort Wayne-based Tower Financial Corp., a third player emerged to lure away almost 10 percent of Tower’s workforce.

Cincinnati-based First Financial Bank is building on its new staff’s client relationships to charge into the market as a full-fledged competitor with temporary downtown offices and plans to start building branches.

The strategy, insiders say, isn’t uncommon. But how it unfolded offers lessons for anyone considering a bold business move.

As Tower Bank prepares to make its exit, Old National and First Financial are fighting for Tower’s share of the local marketplace.

But they aren’t battling just with each other. They have to contend with out-of-state competitors with a local presence: JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Fifth Third and PNC banks. Indiana-based 1st Source, Lake City and Salin banks will also be in the hunt for new customers.

And don’t forget STAR and iAB Financial banks – both are based in Fort Wayne. That hometown tie was Tower’s strongest selling point.

But First Financial and Old National officials insist the advantage won’t be lost entirely. Local borrowers, they said, will still be meeting directly with decision-makers.

Bankers boring? Don’t bet your savings on it.

A game-changer

Old National and Tower on Sept. 10 announced plans to form what they described as a partnership.

Old National is about 15 times larger than Tower, based on total assets. Or 25 times larger, based on number of branches. So, of course, the Tower name is destined to fade away while the Old National banner remains.

Officials stressed at the time that all Tower locations will remain open and staffed with the same executives, loan officers and tellers that customers are used to.

Any jobs destined to be cut in the consolidation would be from behind the scenes – workers whom customers never see. Old National still hasn’t announced how many of the original 165 Tower employees will be dismissed.

At least one executive search firm saw a window of opportunity.

Eggers Consulting Co. Inc. specializes in placing banking and finance executives.

The Omaha, Neb.-based firm’s recruiter assigned to Fort Wayne, Ryan Terry, contacted some Tower employees to find out if they’d be willing to consider offers from other banks.

Randy Lyons, Eggers vice president, said his firm’s recruiters study markets nationwide and maintain contact with prospects in assigned areas.

“Most of the individuals we work with don’t have to make a (job) change,” he said. “They’re doing very, very well.”

But previously content executives can have their loyalty tested when an acquisition is in progress because they’ll suddenly be working for a company they never chose.

“That,” Lyons said, “can be a game-changer.”

A foot in the door

Rob Slusser, formerly Tower’s director of lending and senior vice president, received one of those calls from Eggers Consulting.

Slusser wasn’t itching to leave Tower. But he was willing to listen.

Al Roszczyk, First Financial’s Indiana regional president, also received a call from the Eggers recruiter. Would be he interested in talking to experienced employees in the Fort Wayne market? Indeed, he would.

First Financial had been looking for a foothold in Fort Wayne for about five years, said Claude Davis, president and CEO.

Indiana accounts for 40 percent to 45 percent of First Financial’s business, depending on whether you measure by number of branches or money on deposit, he said.

“Indiana, as a state, is a critical market for us,” he said.

The bank’s branches are in North Manchester; Van Wert, Ohio; and other locations surrounding Fort Wayne. Those smaller communities look to Fort Wayne as their regional hub for shopping, health care and other needs, Davis said. It makes sense to build on that, he added.

“What we needed was the right entry point – a catalyst, of sorts,” he said.

Bank officials had considered various acquisitions to gain a foothold in the local market but didn’t find the right opportunity. Davis said he knows Mike Cahill, Tower Bank’s president and CEO, but he declined to say whether First Financial pursued Tower before Old National’s offer was accepted by Tower’s board.

Tower’s stockholders still have to approve the sale, initially estimated at $108 million. A shareholder meeting has been scheduled for 9:30 a.m. Feb. 7 at the Landmark Centre. The sale is expected to close about a week later.

Hiring an established team of commercial and mortgage lenders – the employees who generate much of any bank’s income – made the most sense to First Financial’s leaders.

In November, Roszczyk drove up from Columbus, Ind., to meet with some Tower employees individually. In the end, 15 accepted his offer to work for First Financial: six commercial lenders, five mortgage lenders, two mortgage underwriters and two mortgage processors.

If Tower hadn’t been sold, Slusser said, “We’d probably still be there. We were happy there.”

Building a bank

Slusser, now First Financial’s Fort Wayne market president, always had a positive impression of his new employer. He liked management’s commitment to customer service and the community. Slusser believes First Financial’s culture meshes perfectly with the one he experienced during his 10 years with Tower.

The recruited bankers will continue numerous volunteer commitments, including serving on the boards of Science Central, Big Brothers Big Sisters and the Fort Wayne Civic Theatre.

Banks are expected to be active in community groups. Old National has also stated its commitment to supporting local nonprofits with donations of money and staff time.

The two newest competitors in Fort Wayne’s already crowded banking community choose not to disparage each other, but officials are eager to explain why their operations can offer more to customers than Tower Bank could.

First Financial and Old National are both able to make larger loans than Tower. And they can provide products and services beyond Tower’s limited scope. For example, Old National offers insurance policies and First Financial offers deposits by cellphone photo.

Such comparisons are intriguing, but it was the interest expressed by his co-workers that persuaded Slusser to seriously consider First Financial’s offer.

Although the Tower bankers were recruited separately, they compared notes and coordinated their exit. The commercial lending team told Slusser, their leader, of their plans. He tendered his resignation the day after those five subordinates did.

“They made it very clear they wanted me to come with them,” he said. “It’s very flattering, humbling.”

“There’s certainly a camaraderie amongst us. Some of us have worked together for years,” he said. “Had they not come over (to First Financial), my decision would have been a lot tougher. But because they came over, my decision was a lot easier.”

Slusser, who declined to say whether Old National made a counteroffer, sees his career move as an exciting new chapter.

“This was an opportunity,” he said, “for me and this team to do something we’d never done before – which is build a bank in this market.”

Lessons learned

Meanwhile, Old National will also be building its name in Fort Wayne. But that won’t happen without a bit of soul-searching.

Peyton Green and Nathan Race, analysts with Alabama-based Sterne Agee, this month cited the defection of Tower’s commercial lending core when they cut in half the amount they predict the Tower acquisition will add to Old National’s earnings per share after the deal closes.

The revised projection is 4 cents a share.

Bob Jones, Old National’s president and CEO, plans to review how his bank deals with prospective employees during takeovers in the wake of the Tower experience.

On Jan. 8, Jones talked to bank analysts during a conference call about Old National’s newest acquisition target: United Bancorp Inc.

During the question-and-answer session, he fielded more than one question about the loss of valued Tower employees, including Cahill, who had been offered the Fort Wayne region president position.

“We’ve got a lot of résumés and a lot of opportunities to replace that team,” Jones said during the conference call, adding that Old National’s management learned its lessons.

“Obviously, you do things a little bit differently every time … maybe we needed a little kick in the butt, too. That said, don’t take yourself so complacent and don’t think you’re better than you are. And make sure you keep these revenue drivers and keep them happy,” he said. “I don’t want to go through this again.”

sslater@jg.net

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