With his $6.3 billion deal for First American Corp., C. Dowd Ritter is signaling the end of Amsouth Bancorp.'s period of introspection.

The 51-year-old chairman and chief executive officer of $20 billion- asset Amsouth has spent the last five years cleaning up a troubled Florida operation, paring back inefficient staff and business units, and reviving revenues.

Last fall the bank said it would strive for 12% to 15% growth in annual earnings per share, and for return on equity of 20% to 22%. ROE reached 20% in the first quarter, and per-share earnings grew 22%.

"We feel very good about the franchise," Mr. Ritter said in a telephone interview. "I like to set aggressive goals and give people the resources to meet them."

Analysts said Amsouth's deal to buy Nashville-based First American is a radical departure for the Birmingham, Ala.-based company, which has not completed an acquisition since a series of deals for Florida thrifts in the early 1990s.

"This is a quantum leap forward for Amsouth, because they have been so internally focused," said John Coffey, an analyst in Atlanta for Robinson Humphrey Co. "They believe that a lot of that internal work is done and that they can apply their business model successfully to another company."

Observers described Mr. Ritter as personable but also competitive and demanding as a manager. Analysts added that his aggressive nature helped him turn around the fortunes of Amsouth, which struggled in the mid-1990s under the burden of high costs and a floundering Florida operation.

"He did that by focusing on profitability and instituting a sales culture," said Lori Appelbaum, an analyst at Goldman, Sachs & Co.

Today, 72% of Amsouth's employees are paid on commission. "People respond to clearly stated goals and objectives," Mr. Ritter said. "If you recognize their efforts and reward them, it's amazing what they can do."

First American has not been as successful in creating a sales culture, analysts said, paving the way for opportunities once the two companies are combined.

Mr. Ritter joined the bank as a trainee in 1969, working his way up through branch administration, trust, retail banking, and the marketing department before being named president and chief operating officer in 1994. He was named to his current role in 1996.

Mr. Ritter said he began talking to First American's chairman and CEO Dennis C. Bottorff in late 1997 and began phoning him three months ago to talk about a deal. After a visit to First American's headquarters on Saturday, May 22, Mr. Ritter put the deal into motion. The boards of each bank met on Memorial Day to approve it.

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