In promoting two executives to vice chairman. Amsouth chairman John W. Woods is preparing a careful course to retirement. But he also seems to have ensured an interesting succession contest for the Alabama bank company.

Mr. Woods and his board appointed C. Stanley Bailey and C. Dowd Ritter - the former from the corporate office and the latter from the line-of-business side - to vice chairman posts last month. The promotions signal that the bank has strong bench strength, Mr. Woods contended in a recent interview.

"I've had my turn at bat," said Mr. Woods, who is 62 and has been chief executive since 1972. "I'm going to move on to other things at age 65 and turn it over to the younger ones."

Seats on the Board

The question is: Which of the younger ones?

Mr. Bailey and Mr. Ritter, both of whom also became directors of Amsouth, would not comment on the succession question.

Mr. Bailey, 44, was senior executive vice president and chief financial officer of the Alabama company. Mr. Ritter, 45, was senior executive vice president in charge of retail banking at AmSouth, which has $11.1 billion of assets.

In his new role, Mr. Bailey will oversee corporate finance, Amsouth's mortgage subsidiary, and private banking. Mr. Ritter will continue to oversee the subsidiary banks in Alabama, Florida, Tennessee, and Georgia, and also run commercial lending, consumer and business banking, and human resources.

Still Undecided

"Clearly, the two of them are in a position that nobody else is in," Mr. Woods said. At the same time, he insisted that "no choices have been made" re- garding his successor.

At least one board member denied any tensions in the dual-chairmanship role or a need to designate a chief executive-elect.

"Until it's necessary, it's stupid to make a decision like that, and it's not necessary yet," said Herbert A. Sklenar, a board member who runs a construction materials company in Birmingham. "They're members of a strong team and view themselves as part of a team."

But bankers at competing banks in Birmingham, who asked for anonymity, were inclined to give the nod to Mr. Ritter because of his line experience.

An Amsouth employee for 24 years, Mr. Ritter has at various times headed branch administration, Amsouth's north-central Alabama region, and, ultimately, all retail banking operations.

For a company with their commitment to grow, you need that kind of leadership," said one Birmingham banker.

The case for Mr. Bailey, who came up on the operations and finance side of the company, rests in his role as point man on Amsouth's highly visible expansion effort.

Buying Spree

Since June 1992, Amsouth has embarked on a campaign of acquisitions in Florida, Georgia, and Tennessee that will have added over $3 billion in assets when all pending deals are completed. The push is arguably the most important strategic move in the holding company's 21-year history.

Mr. Woods was good-humoredly evasive when asked why he didn't simplify things by designating single heir apparent.

"I think I've got a few good years left, and if I pick somebody too soon, (Eligible word) might run me off," he said with a laugh.

More seriously, he said that he needed to quickly appoint a company insider to Amsouth's 27-person board because of the unexpected retirement decision of William A. Powell Jr., the corporation's vice chairman and president. Mr. Powell said he will retire one year early on Aug. 1 because of health problems.

No Time for Grooming

Mr. Woods indicated that did not give him time to groom a successor.

"Had Bill [Powell] stayed his full time, we might have waited a little longer," said Mr. Woods, who will retire as chairman in 1996.

But he suggested that he could tip his hand on a successor well before then, perhaps by stepping down from his chief executive post before his official retirement. "The choice for the next CEO will be made well before I walk out the front door," Mr. Woods said.

Subscribe Now

Access to authoritative analysis and perspective and our data-driven report series.

14-Day Free Trial

No credit card required. Complete access to articles, breaking news and industry data.