At FirstMerit Corp. of Akron, Ohio, the company's cult-like devotion to selling starts at the top.

John R. Cochran, the $9.1 billion-asset company's chairman and chief executive, is FirstMerit's sales guru, pushing employees to squeeze more business from each customer.

"A sales culture begins with the CEO," Mr. Cochran said. "I am very passionate, and that rubs off on people."

While "sales culture" is a buzz phrase in banking these days, it's not just talk at FirstMerit.

"Every banker in America is saying they're putting in a sales culture, but not everyone does it," said Timothy Willi, bank analyst at A.G. Edwards in St. Louis. "John's not afraid to roll up his sleeves and show people how it's done."

Mr. Cochran, 56, learned how to sell during 28 years at Norwest Corp. He was running the Nebraska operation when FirstMerit hired him in 1995. Mr. Cochran persuaded four other Norwest executives to make the move to northeast Ohio with him, including Sid A. Bostic, FirstMerit's president and chief operating officer.

Since 1996, net income has grown 26%, hitting $97.4 million in 1998, and return on assets has improved 18%, to 1.67%.

"John Cochran is one of the best chief executive officers in the banking industry, hands down," said Michael M. Moran, bank analyst at Roney Capital Markets in Detroit. "All you have to do is look at the black and white."

While it is a darling of analysts, FirstMerit has not been embraced by investors. Wall Street punished the company in August when it announced a $470 million deal for Signal Corp., a $2.2 billion-asset bank in Wooster, Ohio.

FirstMerit's share price dropped 10%, to $25.375, the day the deal was unveiled and dipped below $21 in early October. It has bounced back to just over $27 a share, but that is still 25% off FirstMerit's 52-week high of $33.75.

Fred Cummings, bank analyst at McDonald & Co. Investments in Cleveland, said Mr. Cochran must prove he can repeat FirstMerit's successes at Signal.

FirstMerit's sales culture is founded on "Camp We Can Do." The three-day retreat each January focuses 100 executives and managers, referred to as "coaches," on one of the company's strategic goals.

This year, for example, FirstMerit wants to increase its sales from referrals within the bank to 14,500 products, up from 10,164 last year. So employees spent part of the retreat learning about the bank's specialties such as trust services and investment products. They also donned wacky foam helmets for team-building games.

"An energy develops that is contagious," said Ileen Shapiro, senior vice president and director of sales. "We come out of there engaged."

To reinforce the referral theme, the coaches attend one-day refresher retreats each quarter.

The number of referrals a department or branch produces will affect how much its employees earn. For all employees who have direct customer contact-from tellers to branch managers-20% of their pay is tied to how much and how well they sell.

What an employee sells is tracked on a weekly scorecard, which is supported by a $9 million computer platform system. The employees sit down with their coaches twice a week to discuss each customer on the card and how they can sell more to that customer during subsequent visits.

Some cross-selling is obvious, like asking a borrower to move his checking account to FirstMerit. Others take more analysis. One customer service representative referred a customer to FirstMerit's trust department for estate planning after finding out that the customer won a large personal injury claim from an insurance company.

FirstMerit tests its employees' rapport with customers. It hires the Gallup Organization to poll customers each year on how well they are being served. FirstMerit also sends coaches undercover to test FirstMerit employees.

And Mr. Cochran uses "mystery shopping" to evaluate acquisition targets, often posing as the son of an elderly widow.

During a visit to a Signal branch last year, Mr. Cochran said he wanted to open account for his mother, who keeps a high balance in her savings account. While friendly, Mr. Cochran said the Signal employee did not suggest any products for his "mother."

FirstMerit's 150 best sellers, the top 5%, are treated to an annual party starring Mr. Cochran in a comedy skit. Two years ago the celebration was held at the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. Mr. Cochran impersonated Elvis Presley.

FirstMerit's enthusiastic culture may make some bankers squirm, but the company's performance proves that the formula works.

FirstMerit employees have increased their rate of sales from less than one product a day in 1995 to nearly seven products a day last year; 42% of FirstMerit's customers have purchased more than three products from the bank, up from 32% in 1996.

Fee income has also soared, contributing 25% of the company's net revenues last year.

The analyst community has taken note and is touting Mr. Cochran as a model leader of a super-community bank who is able to maximize behind-the- scenes operational efficiencies while providing down-home customer service.

Mr. Willi of A.G. Edwards said Mr. Cochran's investment in personnel makes him stand out from other bank executives. Most banks need to improving the way customers and bankers interact to drive future earnings growth, Mr. Willi said.

"That will be a pivotal characteristic in the survival of this industry," he said. "John's one of the 10% of CEOs that understand that."

And the analysts said they are comfortable with FirstMerit's acquisition strategy, despite shareholder jitters. They even stood by Mr. Cochran last week when he announced a 52% increase, to $79 million, in the charge FirstMerit is taking on the Signal deal, which closed in February. Most of that jump involes writeoffs of pre-fabricated housing credits.

The analysts said FirstMerit's latest evaluation of Signal's loan portfolio is more conservative and should eliminate the need for writedowns in the future.

"It positions them very well going forward not to have any surprises," said Bradley S. Vander Ploeg of Everen Securities in Chicago.

FirstMerit also has successfully completed a handful of small deals since Mr. Cochran arrived. The company bought a financial planning firm, Abel & Associates, in 1997, and last year FirstMerit acquired two Ohio companies, $654 million-asset CoBancorp in Elyria and $678 million-asset Security First in Mayfield Heights.

Mr. Cochran is concerned about shareholder skepticism.

"My greatest obligation is to move the stock price," he said. "I'm worried that we're not getting credit for our focus."

To change some minds, Mr. Cochran has been telling his story this spring to equity analysts. He is also meeting with reporters to boost the company's media coverage. By putting the spotlight on FirstMerit's performance, he said he hopes investors will distinguish the company from other lagging mid-cap stocks.

The bank analysts said they expect stockholders will warm up to FirstMerit by midyear, when the Signal deal is fully digested and cost savings begin to show up in the company's quarterly returns.

"FirstMerit has the potential in the banking industry to be the next big star," said Mr. Willi of A.G. Edwards.

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