Fulfilling its previously announced succession plan, Amsouth Bancorp's board elected president and chief operating officer C. Dowd Ritter as chief executive officer, replacing John W. Woods on Jan. 1.

Amsouth also reaffirmed that Mr. Ritter, 48, will become chairman when Mr. Woods retires next August. Mr. Woods, 64, the bank's CEO since 1972, described Mr. Ritter's promotion last week as "the logical next step in our previously announced leadership transition plan."

Mr. Ritter, a 26-year veteran of Amsouth, has presided over a massive cost-cutting program in the 16 months that he has had operational control of the company. This year, Amsouth shed 1,100 jobs, 15% of its work force, and 43 branches, bringing the efficiency ratio down to 57% in the third quarter from 64% in the first.

Mr. Ritter also brought in several new executives, so that half the senior management team is now composed of outsiders from larger banks such as Mellon Bank Corp., Barnett Banks Inc., and Banc One Corp.

The changes were spurred by a need to improve earnings, which had been depressed by an expensive 1994 acquisition program that added $7 billion of assets, mostly from Florida thrifts.

"We've been trying to run off the traditional thrift products - the mortgage loans and the certificates of deposit - and have been replacing them with credit cards, check cards, and home equity lines of credit," Mr. Ritter said in an interview. "The earnings improvement came a full quarter earlier than most people had expected."

Amsouth, with $17 billion of assets, earned $46.1 million in the third quarter, up 5% from a year earlier, representing a 1.09% return on assets and 13.38% return on equity.

Earlier in the year, Amsouth also committed to spend $63 million over the next couple of years to upgrade the software and other technology used by its commercial and retail bankers.

Mr. Ritter joined Amsouth's management training program in 1969 and served in branch administration, trust, retail banking, and marketing. He was promoted to executive vice president in 1980, senior executive vice president in 1988, and vice chairman in 1993.

He was promoted to president and chief operating officer in August 1994, beating out a rival, vice chairman C. Stanley Bailey, who was prime architect of the Florida acquisitions. Mr. Bailey resigned a month later and took a job as chief financial officer of Hancock Holding Co. in Gulfport, Miss.

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