Thomas H. Jacobsen has spent the last decade on a trajectory toward the type of deal he announced Friday with Firstar Corp.

The 59-year-old chairman and chief executive officer of St. Louis-based Mercantile Bancorp. has been described by bankers and others who know him as a hard-driving executive who helped turn around the fortunes of the institution and build a company ripe for the picking.

Mr. Jacobsen arrived at Mercantile in 1989, just when the bank was struggling to overcome severe problems in its commercial loan portfolio.

In less than one year, observers said, Mr. Jacobsen had returned Mercantile to profitability. He then embarked on a decade-long acquisition campaign that boosted Mercantile's assets from $6.5 billion to $36 billion.

"He took a company that was not very well known and that was struggling and really turned things around," said David Daberko, the chairman and chief executive officer of Cleveland-based National City Corp. and a longtime friend of Mr. Jacobsen's.

"When he gets immersed in something, he really goes at it," Mr. Daberko added. "He's very goal-oriented. I think ultimately he believed that this is where it was going to go."

Mercantile's $10 billion agreement with Firstar Corp. is slated to close in the fourth quarter, at which point Mr. Jacobsen would become chairman of the new company.

A Chicago native, Mr. Jacobsen began his career at First National Bank of Chicago. After 13 years working his way through commercial and retail banking, computer operations, and capital markets, he jumped to Jacksonville, Fla.-based Barnett Banks Inc.

He spent another 13 years at Barnett, rising to vice chairman before being plucked to succeed Mercantile chairman Donald E. Lasater in 1989.

In his tenure at Mercantile, Mr. Jacobsen has made over two dozen acquisitions and expanded the company into six states. With the purchases of Mark Twain Bankshares and Roosevelt Financial Corp. in 1997, he boosted Mercantile to No.1 in market share in Missouri.

Former executives of Mercantile said cultural issues and constant restructuring became a source of frustration for many at the company. Mr. Jacobsen is known to prefer a flat organization and never designated a successor.

Internally, Mr. Jacobsen was compared to Darth Vader, the "Star Wars" villain. Former executives said his workaholic management style led to a steady stream of departures among top management.

This year Mercantile announced its latest restructuring effort-a plan to cut 1,300 jobs, or 11% of the work force, and streamline operations.

Analysts said what began in the early 1990s as a dream to build Mercantile into a dominant regional bank with leading market share at some point became a struggle to remain independent.

"He tried to postpone the inevitable," said Anthony Polini, an analyst at Advest Inc.

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.