Their historically steady earnings record notwithstanding, banking companies in the Midwest are being forced by lagging revenue growth and economic uncertainty to consider cutting their staffs.

Huntington Bancshares of Columbus, Ohio, woke up the region to the possible pain this month in announcing a reduction of 1,000 jobs, 10% of its total. At least three other companies are exploring restructuring programs.

Mercantile Bancorp. of St. Louis, Provident Financial Group of Cincinnati, and Community First Bankshares of Fargo, N.D., have told the investment community that cost-cutting programs could be announced this year. These together could increase the layoff toll by as much as 2,000 in an industry that is on track to rival the last wave of cutbacks in 1994 and 1995.

Plans to cut about 36,000 jobs in the financial services industry have been announced this year through mid-October, according to Challenger, Gray & Christmas, a Chicago-based outplacement firm. Financial services trails the electronics, computer, and consumer goods sectors.

The majority of the financial cuts are related to this year's big mergers or to the international losses stinging money-center commercial banks and investment banks.

More layoffs are anticipated among the money-centers and companies such as Bank One Corp. of Chicago that have not publicized their plans.

Speculation is that Bank One, the combination of Banc One Corp. and First Chicago NBD Corp., may cut as many as 9,000 people.

The merger of Firstar Corp. of Milwaukee and Star Banc Corp. of Cincinnati is expected to result in the loss of 1,400 jobs, though the companies are not yet talking officially.

"Companies are under the gun from Wall Street to meet earnings expectations," said John A. Challenger, chief executive officer of Challenger Gray. "If they can't do it through revenue growth, they'll have to do it through cost cutting. Job reductions are not the only part of that, but certainly they are a major component."

Gerard Cassidy, an analyst with Tucker Anthony Inc., said, "Looking into the future, pressures on profitability are becoming apparent. Inc. The pressures on earnings need to be offset." That will be done through companies' buying back their own stock and by cutting expenses.

Huntington chairman and CEO Frank Wobst said in an interview earlier this month that personnel expenses had become a drag on profits.

Mercantile is mulling a plan that would cut as many as 1,100 of its 11,000 employees.

"It is now time to trim the ship and focus on productivity and efficiency," John McClure, Mercantile's chief financial officer, told investors in a conference call last week. Mercantile, an active acquirer for the past several years, has sworn off mergers for 1999 to focus on internal growth and needs.

Provident Financial said in August that it was working to identify ways to cut expenses. It plans to unveil a program in mid-December.

"We are not being forced to undertake this reengineering program," Provident CEO Robert L. Hoverson told employees in a memo. "We are doing this out of choice from a position of strength."

The market downturn and fear of a slowing economy have compelled Community First to review its expenses. That could result in a cost-cutting plan to be announced in November, CEO Donald R. Mengedoth said.

Analysts expect Community First to shed between 200 and 300 of its 3,000 jobs.

The $6 billion company operates in 11 states and has grown quickly through acquisitions, managing in a decentralized way according to the super-community model. Mr. Mengedoth said it has tried to rely on employee attrition, but with the market downturn, some layoffs may be in order.

"This economy has had an impact on our organization not unlike what other companies are facing," Mr. Mengedoth said. "The reality is that the market has not been treating banks very well. We're saying our stock is not going to get any worse by doing some housecleaning."

Smaller banks are announcing reductions, too. Community Trust Bancorp of Pikeville, Ky., said in September it would cut 78 employees, or 9% of its workers. St. Paul Bancorp of Chicago said this month that 90 would take early retirement, though some investors said the thrift company will have to make additional cuts.

Peoples Holding Co. of Tupelo, Miss., said this month it would cut 20% of its 585 employees to avoid takeover-another motive that is beginning to enter into decision making.

"There is only one other place you can get a pickup of earnings growth, and that's tightened management of expenses," said Diana Yates, an analyst with A.G. Edwards & Sons Inc., St. Louis.

Still, some analysts say the jury is out on whether restructurings deliver what is necessary.

"I don't think banks have the opportunity to boost earnings growth as dramatically as they once had," said Anthony Polini, an analyst with Advest Group. These programs "are not going to provide the same bang they have in the past."

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