Harris Trust and Savings Bank, saying it couldn't keep pace with banks catering to large corporate trust clients, is selling the business to Citicorp for an undisclosed price.
"Frankly, our level of profitability was unacceptable, unsustainable and going the wrong way," said Alan G. McNally, chairman and chief executive of Harris, which is a subsidiary of the Bank of Montreal.
Indeed, Harris' announcement last week followed the loss of one of its larger corporate trust clients at yearend. The Chicago-based telecommunications company Ameritech Corp. moved its $15 billion savings and pension fund from Harris' custodial department to State Street Bank in Boston.
Citicorp, which has $900 billion of assets under custody, will get Harris' securities custody and related trust service of large pension funds and its servicing of corporate trusts. The deal is expected to close sometime in the third quarter.
Harris has between $160 billion and $170 billion in assets under management, but the assets for large financial institutions is only "a portion" of that business, said Mr. McNally.
Some of the 275 employees who will lose their jobs at Harris will be offered jobs at Citibank in Chicago, officials said.
Mr. McNally declined to discuss the significance of the loss of the Ameritech business. He said the bank had been reviewing its commitment to large corporate trust for more than six months.
"It's become an increasingly specialized, increasingly scale-intensive business undergoing rapid industrywide consolidation," Mr. McNally said.
Analysts agreed. "Anyone who doesn't have scale can't invest in technology, and if you haven't invested in technology you can't keep pace," said Susan Roth, an analyst with Bear Stearns & Co. Inc.
Ms. Roth said the Harris transaction is a minor deal compared with those made over the last 12 months by banks with more than $1 trillion in assets under management. If large banks such as BankAmerica Corp. and J.P. Morgan can't compete, small players such as Harris won't be able to either, she said.
Analysts said serving large trust customers can be a very low-margin business unless you have significant scale to sustain it.
Sandy Jaffee, division executive of worldwide securities services at Citicorp, said about 70% of the Harris customer accounts are U.S. institutions, primarily in the Midwest, and 30% are United Kingdom institutions. Bank of Montreal's Canadian customers will continue to be serviced by Harris' parent.
Harris officials emphasized that they won't be quitting the trust business completely and will continue with middle-market and personal trust operations.