Community National Bank of Sarasota County has a new lead shareholder: its 19 employees.

Last month Community National's employee stock ownership plan bought 30% of the Venice, Fla.-based company's outstanding shares.

The ESOP is now the bank's largest shareholder, which makes Community National one of the few largely employee-owned banks in the country, according to the National ESOP Association.

"When this bank was organized 10 years ago it was formed with the intention of being a local community bank," L. Edward Schuler, executive vice president and chief operating officer of the $56 million-asset bank.

"This was a way we felt we could continue as a locally owned bank."

Last summer a group of Community National directors decided to sell their part of the bank, about 77% of all shares. Before soliciting bids from other banks, the directors gave Mr. Schuler a chance to organize an offer by the employees.

He partnered with two private investors who were willing to buy up to 22% each, and arranged a loan so the ESOP could buy its share.

Part of the directors' motivation was a tax break for selling stock to ESOPs.

As long as the ESOP is buying at least a 30% stake, the seller qualifies for tax code section 1042 treatment, according to Bob L. Sellers, chairman of Bank Consultants of America, Memphis.

hat means the seller can reinvest the profit without paying capital gains tax on the sale.

Though rare, an ESOP owning so much of a bank's stock is not unheard of.

For example, in 1994 an employee stock ownership plan bought 63% of the stock of Antioch (Ill.) Bancshares.

"We wanted to have some control over our destiny," said Louis Korom 3d, senior vice president of Antioch's banking affiliate, First National Bank- Employee Owned.

As the name implies, Mr. Korom said, his bank has done what it can to publicize its ownership.

Community National has no plans to take a new name, but Mr. Schuler said he is kicking around some marketing ideas. One involves replacing everyone's business card.

"I keep picturing a card that says 'Susie Jones, teller/proprietor,'" he said. "I think that would be really neat."

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