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AmSouth exec sees growth ahead

The Alabama company's new market president is sending his bankers out to drum up new business in a competitive business.

By JEFF HARRINGTON
Published August 16, 2004

TAMPA - It's not enough to pass out brochures touting the latest no-fee checking account or investment vehicle.

In today's ever-competitive banking arena, AmSouth Bank may want to add something more basic to its arsenal: plenty of umbrellas.

As a morning rain slapped against the window panes outside his 31st-floor office in downtown Tampa, AmSouth's new market president Brett Couch was extolling the virtues of getting his troop of bankers outside the office as much as possible.

"I love getting out in the market," Couch said, relaying that he heads out to meet with six or seven new business prospects a week. About half of AmSouth's 800 bankers in the West Coast region spend time selling bank products out of the office as part of their job, he adds.

It's a strategy born of necessity.

AmSouth is midway through a plan to add 90 branches throughout Florida within three years, about half of them in the Tampa Bay area. Acquisitions are a possibility but Couch is counting on much of the growth one branch at a time. Since early 2003, the Birmingham, Ala., bank has opened 10 branches in Tampa/St. Petersburg/Clearwater alone. Grand opening ceremonies are planned in a couple of weeks for one branch in south Tampa and another in Fishhawk.

That means AmSouth needs to build contacts in communities the old-fashioned way: cold calls and neighborhood activities.

It fits in the mold of an institution whose slogan is "the relationship people." During events such as branch openings, AmSouth often performs "random acts of hospitality" in the neighborhood. Last week, bankers at the Hyde Park branch picked up the tab for coffee at Starbucks and Panera Bread and passed out $2 coupons for haircuts at Great Clips.

Couch recalled when his 10-year-old son, Davis, asked him two years ago just what bankers do. "I said, "Davis, I get to go on a field trip every day.' And he said, "Wow.' "

Since entering Florida in 1987, AmSouth has grown into one of the market's biggest players. After the pending merger of Wachovia and SouthTrust, AmSouth will be the fifth-largest bank in Florida. In the Tampa Bay area, it's No. 4. In Pinellas County, No. 3.

Though AmSouth was one of the first out-of-state banks to actively grow through acquisitions in Florida, it still has ample gaps in market coverage - or, as Couch refers to them, "opportunities."

Couch, who turns 41 this month, became area executive in charge of the west coast of Florida in June. His territory includes more than 90 branches from the Tampa Bay area to Naples.

The region was in flux when he arrived. His predecessor, Stan Kryder, had held the job just three months before leaving the bank. Kryder's predecessor, Susan "Susie" Martinez was promoted to run AmSouth's $6.7-billion Florida operation.

A native of Fayette, Ala., a town of about 5,000 near Tuscaloosa, Couch has spent his 20-year banking career in the South. After graduating from the University of Alabama, he worked in Atlanta for SunTrust for five years before joining AmSouth. His job track took him to Chattanooga, Tenn., to start a commercial department for AmSouth and to the bank's Birmingham headquarters to run the small business line.

He was two years into a stint as president of the bank's Mississippi operations when he was tapped for the Tampa position.

A team on a mission

With Wachovia Corp.'s pending acquisition of SouthTrust, another Alabama bank, several bank analysts pointed to AmSouth as the next 'Bama bank likely to be sold.

That, after all, has been the pattern after one of a state's biggest banks agrees to be acquired, said Ben Bishop, of the investment banking firm Allen C. Ewing & Co. in Jacksonville. He pointed out that there had been no sales of large Virginia banks for years until a decade ago when Sovereign was acquired by C&S. Within three years, seven Virginia banks sold.

"The same thing happened in Tennessee," Bishop said. "AmSouth is a quality institution. . . . In my opinion, somebody is going to make them an offer they can't refuse, whether that happens tomorrow or three years from now."

The likelihood of a sale rose, he said, after AmSouth overcame some problems from a Tennessee acquisition.

For now, AmSouth says it has no plan to go quietly into the sunset of acquired banks. Couch's team in Tampa is on a mission first and foremost to build its consumer banking business - core products such as checking accounts, home equity loans and credit cards.

Not that other mergers aren't having an effect. Like other banks, AmSouth will consider buying some of the overlapping branches that Wachovia/SouthTrust shed after their merger.

Fifth Third Bank's entry into the bay area market through the acquisition of First National Bankshares of Florida also will prompt changes. Given Fifth Third's reputation as an aggressive marketer, AmSouth may tweak its product mix to match any products that are rolled out, Couch said.

Yet, innovative products only get a bank so far. "The key difference is on the service side," Couch said. "People bank with people."

His workers apparently back him up. AmSouth recently quizzed employees throughout its footprint on what the bank's corporate goal "to be the best" means to them personally. Answers varied state to state. In Florida, Couch said, the top interpretation was "to be a big part of the community we work and live in."

Jeff Harrington can be reached at harrington@sptimes.com or 813 226-3407.

[Last modified August 14, 2004, 00:23:14]

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