John W. Rowe, the mergers and acquisitions chief at Mercantile Bancorp., has left to become chief executive officer of a health-care group.

The St. Louis banking company has not appointed a successor.

Well known among bankers and investment bankers around the Midwest, Mr. Rowe, 57, joined Mercantile nearly 10 years ago as chief investment officer. He later was named executive vice president in charge of mergers and acquisitions. The $35 billion-asset company completed more than 20 deals during his tenure.

Mr. Rowe became president and CEO of Bethesda Health Group of St. Louis in August. He had been outside chairman of the nonprofit for the last two years and a director for the last 12.

Some observers said his move indicates a slowdown in Mercantile's acquisition strategy. But Mr. Rowe said there was no connection, and that he left the company on good terms.

"My departure should not signal anything like that," Mr. Rowe said in an interview. "This really is an opportunity for me to manage my own business."

He did predict "a slowdown in bank acquisitions as a result of concerns about year-2000 and the general decline of stock prices."

Analysts said losing such a veteran executive is bound to slow the pace of Mercantile's deals-and that is not seen as a bad thing.

Mercantile has made so many acquisitions over the past several years that it needs to finish absorbing them and focus on profitability. Just this year the company announced agreements to buy four banks and a brokerage. It has completed all those transactions except its deal for First Financial Bancorp. of Iowa City, which is expected to close in the next two weeks.

Diana Yates, an analyst with A.G. Edwards in St. Louis, said Mercantile officials are saying they will be internally focused for the next year. "They are serious about trying to get profitability up," Ms. Yates said. Given the pace of acquisitions, "if they do anything else, they could sink the ship."

Michael Ancell, an analyst with Edward Jones in St. Louis, said: "They really have a lot on their plate, and they shouldn't be doing any (other deals) for a while."

Mercantile is also considered a prime takeover target, but it is unlikely to be holding serious discussions of that kind now that its key negotiator is gone, Ms. Yates said.

Mr. Rowe is the third top executive to leave this year. John H. Beirise, who was group president of capital markets, left in February. Stanley J. Bradshaw, who ran mortgage servicing after Mercantile acquired the company he headed, Roosevelt Financial Group, left in July.

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