Almost half the nation's community banks have designated no heir to the chief executive, and many have no plan to anoint one, according to a new survey by the American Bankers Association.

The survey, which was to be released Monday at the ABA's National Conference of Community Bankers in Palm Desert, Calif., found that only 22% of banks lacking a succession plan felt a need to adopt one anytime soon. This is despite the fact that one-third of the respondents will be 60 to 70 years old in the next five years, and 60% will be at least 60 by 2010.

"People quite simply think they are going to live forever, and they don't want to think about succession plans," said Steve Cocheo, executive editor of ABA Banking Journal, one of the sponsors of the survey. "It does make you wonder what will become of some of these banks should something unexpected happen to the chief executive."

Of the banks that lack a succession plan, about 32% are closely held companies that intend to let family members name a new CEO when the time comes. Nine percent said they plan for their bank to be acquired before it will ever need a new chief executive, and 6% said they have no time to worry about succession plans.

The survey, which contacted 1,104 community banks with various questions on industry concerns, found that staffing concerns were not limited to the chief executive's office. About half the banks said they were having trouble attracting employees, and 32% said they have trouble keeping them.

Mr. Cocheo said this problem is affecting banks nationwide and is part of a larger trend.

"With unemployment rates so low, the overall job market is very competitive," he said. "There are stories of employees leaving new jobs after just a few weeks because they have found something better elsewhere."

Many banks are opening their wallets a little wider in order to keep branches fully staffed. Almost 70% said they have increased their salary scale, and 25% have introduced incentive pay. Internal promotions are emphasized at 32% of the banks surveyed.

Banks are also struggling to attract young customers, with only half of the institutions surveyed saying they believe they appeal to people born after 1964.

About 50% say they are expanding their electronic banking offerings in hopes of attracting younger customers. Just under one-third have devised special products designed to appeal to youth, and 20% say their advertisements target young people.

What the banks are not doing is talking to potential customers directly. Just seven percent say they hold young-customer focus groups, and 1.6% have a Generation X or Y advisory board.

But the banks are flocking to the Internet. More than 53% said they have a Web site, more than double the 22% who had one when the same question was posed in 1997. Seven percent said they intend to launch a site this year.

And those sites are becoming more advanced. One-quarter provide customers with account balances, twice last year's level. About the same number allow users to open accounts and apply for loans, a 50% increase from 1998.

Deposits were up at 68% of community banks last year, about the same percentage as in the last few years. But deposit growth lagged loan demand at nearly half the banks.

For that reason, 42% said they looked to sources other than deposits for funds. More than 75% used Federal Home Loan bank advances, 60% used federal funds, and 20% turned to brokered certificates of deposit.

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