BILOXI, Miss. - Barbara DeLano, a developer in this Gulf Coast town, can't wait for January to begin.
On that first week of the new year a start-up bank, Coast Community Bank, will open its doors and Ms. DeLano will transfer her account there, leaving behind Alabama's giant SouthTrust Corp. forever.
She will do this for the normal reasons some customers prefer community banks to the larger regionals: personal attention, flexible lending policies, and familiar faces behind the teller windows.
But the main factor behind her decision is D'Auby H. Schiel, who will be the chief executive of the new institution.
"She just has such a following," says Ms. DeLano. "I think there'll be a big sucking sound coming from SouthTrust next month."
Ms. Schiel's following - and the formation of Coast Community - is testament to the power of reputation and relationships. Though observers say the vibrant Gulf Coast economy - boosted by the growing gambling industry in the area - make such a new institution here feasible, most agree Coast Community couldn't succeed without Ms. Schiel, the longtime CEO of a bank acquired last year by SouthTrust.
Few have tried in recent years. In fact, Coastal Community will be Mississippi's first start-up to actually open in nearly two decades.
"This is a unique situation," says John S. Allison, deputy commissioner of the state's banking department. "This comes down to the right mix at the right time. If someone else came down there to start one, the numbers might be right but maybe not the person."
The sucking sound that Ms. DeLano referred to may have already begun, and it was started by Ms. Schiel herself.
If her ability to snare fellow SouthTrust employees away to Coast Community is any indication, she should have little trouble with the customers. Eight former colleagues at SouthTrust Bank of South Mississippi in Biloxi, including its chief financial officer, have thrown in their lot with her.
Most of them have worked with her for more than 20 years, at three different banks in the Gulf Coast area.
"After being the number one person for 16 years without anyone else telling you what to do, it was a little difficult for me," says Ms. Schiel, referring to her 11 months within SouthTrust's $18 billion-asset empire.
"If I feel like something is right I just go ahead and do it, and it normally turns out O.K.," she adds. "It just wasn't fun anymore, and when that happens, you owe it to your employer to work somewhere else."
Ms. Schiel brings a formidable background to the challenge. Her 34 years in banking includes 15 years at the helm of the Jefferson Bank in Biloxi. She was the state's first female bank CEO, and for a number of years, its only one.
She turned what had been a troubled $6 million-asset institution when she arrived in 1979 into the highly profitable $43 million-asset bank that SouthTrust acquired in the fall of 1994.
She stayed on as head of the newly merged bank within SouthTrust until she realized last summer that "it was time to find something else to do."
She didn't waste much time. Most start-ups take at least one year to organize; Coast Community could do it in less than five months, maybe four.
"Time was of the essence," Ms. Schiel says. "Ninety days is a long time to wait when you've got competition picking up your old customers. But I know these people, and I've helped grow their businesses, so I think we'll have a pretty good chance."
Within two months of leaving SouthTrust in September, she had assembled a start-up team, found temporary offices, filed for and received a state charter, and raised $2.5 million in capital. Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. examiners were visiting just last week.
More than half of the capital came from Community Bancshares of Forest, Miss., a three-bank holding company. In addition to the financial support, the presence of the holding company gives Coast Community the back-office assistance, product diversity, and computer capability it needs to hit the ground running.
So what are its competitors thinking?
"Well, we're not going to hire a brass band to welcome her into town," says Leo W. Seal, chairman of the $2.25 billion-asset Hancock Holding Co. in neighboring Gulfport, the largest bank in the area. "But if she wants to get back into the market she should, and we'll just see how it works out."
Ms. Schiel's replacement at SouthTrust, Jerry R. Richards, said that although it is difficult to determine the extent of the deposit runoff because it has been replaced in part by new business, he suspects it has been minimal. One casino account has transferred to a local bank, however.
"I'm not terribly concerned about (Coast Community)," says Mr. Richards. "She was not the only good banker here. We retained a lot of good ones. Plus, I think the market here has room for another bank, so the effect will be negligible for us."
A pair of big casinos currently under construction will bring Biloxi's total to 10 - all built since Mississippi legalized gambling three years ago.
Though it will go after a few casino accounts - three at the most - the bank intends to focus primarily on small and medium-sized businesses. Casinos require special services, such as $2 million in quarters at a moment's notice, and the bank would not be able to serve any more than two or three such customers properly, Ms. Schiel says.
Service, after all, will be the lifeblood of Coast Community.
Ms. DeLano tells of the time Ms. Schiel, then at Jefferson Bank, canceled a personal trip in order to make sure the bank got a loan to the developer. An opportunity to buy out a partner had suddenly arisen.
"Her attitude was, 'what can I do for you' rather than I'm doing you a favor," says Ms. DeLano. "She just does whatever is needed to makes things easier. I'll bet that she'll have the fewest bad loans on the coast because no ones want to let her down and disappoint her."