This should be Richard Hickson's time in the sun.

After a year as chief executive officer of Jackson, Miss.-based Trustmark Corp., the longtime southern banker is forging a new sense of purpose at the $5.8 billion-asset company.

Yet the 53-year-old executive would rather stay in the shadows.

Mr. Hickson's predecessor, longtime chairman and former CEO Frank R. Day, is suffering from a debilitating illness but has stayed on as a member of Trustmark's management.

As a result, Mr. Hickson is loath to take the spotlight.

"We're going through a lot of changes here," he said in a recent interview. "You will see a realignment and a shift in our bank. But it's a real team effort."

Despite the delicacy of his situation, Mr. Hickson is using the lessons he learned as president of SouthTrust Corp.'s Atlanta bank to push the historically conservative Trustmark toward a more aggressive posture.

Indeed, analysts who had been frustrated with the company's stodgy ways are now applauding Mr. Hickson.

"What is going on is a changing of the guard," said John B. Moore, an analyst at Morgan Keegan & Co. "Frank Day has been there a long time. It's been incredibly conservatively run. But Hickson has a very different background than any of the other senior people at Trustmark. It's a real different breath coming into the company."

Many longtime Trustmark executives have welcomed Mr. Hickson's efforts toward change, though they do not disavow the company's past.

"It has added new energy to the company," said Trustmark chief financial officer Gerard R. Host.

In one of the most pronounced departures from the past, the company has set a goal of reducing its capital ratio, to about 9% of average assets from the current 11%, in the next several years.

Though a strong capital position is a key to weathering stormy economic times, many investors favor those companies that put their excess capital to work.

Management is contemplating several options for the money, such as making acquisitions, initiating a share buyback, applying resources toward internal growth, and changing the company's dividend policy, Mr. Host said.

Deploying capital responsibly is "an issue that we need to address," he said.

At nearly triple the minimum required by regulators, Trustmark's capital ratio is "fortress-level," he added.

The company is also moving to add $1 billion of loans to its portfolio over the next three years, with more small-business loans and consumer credits high on the priority list.

In April, for instance, the company introduced a home equity product that has added $70 million so far.

The running goal is to increase loans by at least $25 million a month, with about one-quarter of this growth coming from each of four areas: commercial, small-business, retail, and indirect lending.

Trustmark officials said they have particularly high hopes for small- business lending.

Former regional retail manager Robert B. Lampton was appointed first vice president/small-business banking in January. A month later, the company created 15 slots for small-business lenders and sent them out on the street armed with a bevy of products. These efforts generated about $7 million of loans during April and May, said Mr. Lampton.

Indeed, installing a strong sales-oriented culture throughout Trustmark is one of Mr. Hickson's priorities, the chief executive said.

Trustmark has "focused on customer service and customer relationships through the years, and we're now realigning ourselves to take our strong service culture and bring about a sales culture just as focused," he added.

As part of this more sales-oriented strategy, Trustmark is consolidating administrative functions throughout its network of 20 banks and 140 branches in Mississippi. This efficiency effort is aimed at giving employees more time to sell.

Trustmark has also embarked on a series of technology upgrades in the past year. The system used to process consumer loans has been improved, and new technology for handling deposits is being tested. Also this year, an upgrading of the system supporting tellers is to be introduced.

All of these moves are coming at an opportune time for Trustmark. Last month, First American Corp. of Nashville bought Trustmark's hometown rival, Deposit Guaranty Corp., for $2.7 billion.

With 15.1% of the $25.4 billion of deposits in the state, Trustmark already holds the No. 1 market share. But room for growth remains in the company's target region, a 300-mile radius around Jackson.

In an effort specifically designed to steal Deposit Guaranty commercial customers, Trustmark has begun an "adopt-a-prospect" program. Each Trustmark bank has assigned its board members to woo away a business customer from a rival bank.

"When your major competitor decides to be involved in a merger ... it creates more than a regular significant opportunity," said Mr. Hickson. "We view this as a potential change in the dynamics of the marketplace that hasn't happened before, nor will it happen again."

Insiders said they were generally pleased at the changes in Trustmark, and they credited Mr. Hickson's skills for their company's new direction.

"He's got a lot of good experience in operating in a competitive market," said Mr. Lampton.

But Mr. Hickson played down the praise, saying he is not interested in distinguishing himself-just Trustmark.

"There's been a lot to do in a year," Mr. Hickson said. "We've been very, very busy."

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