Despite worries from outside observers that the merger of Florida's two trade groups will leave small banks without a voice, community bankers insist they will control the combined organization.

Members of the Community Bankers of Florida and the Florida Bankers Association voted to merge in July. The purpose of marrying the two former rivals was a hot topic here last week as bankers gathered for the community bankers group's last convention.

"The industry is such that we need one strong group," said Stephen L. Price, outgoing president of the community bankers. "And I believe this group will be a powerful voice for community banks."

Industry consolidation has made the combination necessary, said Community Bankers executive director Jeffrey Grady. Since 1996 his group's membership has fallen from 200 to 150, despite adding 30 de novo banks to its ranks. About 130 banks are members of both groups.

Mr. Price, also president and chief executive officer of Florida Community Bank, Immokalee, Fla., insisted that the bylaws of the new Florida Bankers Association-which would have 400 members-will ensure that smaller banks have their say.

The merged group will adopt a "one bank, one vote" policy, instead of keeping a rule that parceled out voting power according to size. Also, banks will be divided into three tiers-by size-when voting for association directors. That way, banks of all sizes are assured representation on the board.

But outsiders were not convinced. Robert Milligan, state comptroller, said in a speech at the convention that he was "disappointed" when he heard of the groups' merger plan.

"At a time when the opportunity is so great for community banks, it seems to me this is the time to stand on two feet and be independent," he said. "The Florida Bankers Association has a reputation as a big-bank organization."

Added a Florida bank consultant who asked not to be identified: "I guarantee you there will be a new community group formed within five years."

Still, even community bankers who were opposed to the merger appear optimistic. Although he was one of two Community Bankers board members to vote against the combination, Guy D. Colado, president of National Bank of Commerce, Winter Park, now supports it. He said he hopes that over time the bankers association's larger members-many of which are based out of state- will lose interest in being a part of the organization.

"How long will big banks want to pay $80,000 in dues to Florida?" Mr. Colado asked. "If I was a bank in 20 states, I would reconsider belonging to every state's organization. For the money they would save, they could more than pay for their own lobbyists."

And though Dale W. Morris quit the Florida Bankers Association last year because "it was so influenced by the big banks," he said the new group will put smaller banks first.

"It is important to have one voice in Florida," said Mr. Morris, president and chief executive officer of First Community Bank of Palm Beach County, Belle Glade, Fla. "I believe this setup will leave community banks in control of what that voice says."

Subscribe Now

Access to authoritative analysis and perspective and our data-driven report series.

14-Day Free Trial

No credit card required. Complete access to articles, breaking news and industry data.