Thomas H. Coley sits on the hot seat of Atlanta banking and knows it. To him falls the task of cobbling together South Trust Corp.'s collection of Atlanta acquisitions into a single organization.

"It's been one of our bigger challenges to meld these various cultures into South Trust Bank of Georgia," says Mr. Coley, the bank's 49-year-old chairman, chief executive, and president.

Three summers ago, when Mr. Coley joined South Trust's Atlanta team, the Birmingham-based bank had one office, $55 million in assets, and 25 employees in the Georgia capital. After completion of its most recent acquisition, it will boast 95 branches, $2.5 billion in assets, and more than 1,000 employees.

South Trust managed to build its franchise on the cheap by picking up, at fire sale prices, a community bank, an insolvent S&L, branches from a troubled thrift, and the Georgia subsidiary of scandal-plagued First American Bankshares Inc. In July, South Trust struck a deal to acquire another thrift, Prime Bancshares Inc., which has $686 million in assets.

Mr. Coley's job is to make it work. Since the institutions that South Trust acquired had different computer systems, operating procedures and corporate cultures, it's been quite a task to get everyone doing things the South Trust way.

But Mr. Coley says he has made progress. Three operations centers were folded into one, employees retrained, and four separate charters (three bank, one S&L) consolidated.

His biggest challenge? "Hiring, training, and motivating a lot of people in a short period. We had to build, pretty much from scratch, the infrastructure of the bank."

Mr. Coley estimates that his bank, with assets of $1.8 billion, will earn about $4 million by yearend. That figure doesn't include the Prime Bank purchase, which is expected to close in the fourth or first quarter. South Trust Bank of Georgia has been marginally profitable in recent years, despite the acquisitions.

Track Record Is Strong

Mr. Coley's track record is impressive, considering that he had never run his own show before. The Jacksonville native received an accounting degree from Florida State University.

After two years in the Army, he spent most of his career as a corporate and international lender, first for Atlanta-based Citizens and Southern Corp. and then with National Bank of Georgia.

"I've watched Tom go from being on the corporate side of NBG to running a community bank to growing into the role of president of a major financial company here in Atlanta," says T. Stephen Johnson, a former NBG executive who now has a consulting company.

Mr. Johnson, who advised South Trust on its Atlanta acquisitions, cited Mr. Coley's management style as his strongest feature. "He's very supportive, very encouraging. The enthusiasm Tom brings to the job is catching."

Some Muscle for Merging

J. Randall Carroll, another former NBG executive, said Mr. Coley's experience there will help him consolidate First American, South Trust's largest Atlanta acquisition, which was finalized in May. "It will give him a edge in merging that organization because he'll know who he wants and who doesn't want," said Mr. Carroll, who now heads Mountain National Bank in Tucker, Ga.

Mr. Coley worked for NBG from 1984 to 1989. During most of that period, the bank was owned by fugitive Saudi financier Ghaith Pharaon, who is now facing federal indictments for his role in the Bank of Credit and Commerce International scandal.

Mr. Coley saw little of Mr. Pharaon. But he once attended a BCCI conclave in Vienna that was presided over by BCCI's mastermind Agha Hasan Abedi. During these sessions, Mr. Abedi liked to ramble for hours in a seemingly philosophical vein. Mr. Coley says he can't recall anything substantive Mr. Abedi ever said.

Mr. Coley left NBG about a year after Mr. Pharaon sold it to First American and joined South Trust.

Focus on the Middle Market

Despite stiff competition from all the North Carolina super-regionals and Atlanta's own Sun Trust Banks Inc., Mr. Coley believes South Trust can stake out its piece of the Atlanta market.

His strategy is to focus corporate lending on the middle market, or companies with annual sales under $150 million, but offer a complete menu of products and services to retail customers.

"When people roll into town, they see South Trust signs all over Atlanta. The way I look at it, we're on a level playing field with everybody else in town," he says, with characteristic cheeriness. "We've got just as good a shot at getting that business as anybody else."

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