Increasingly discontent with the costs and inflexibility of correspondent banking, community bankers in Florida are discussing the formation of a cooperative to reduce back-office expenses.

"We're looking for players, for like-minded mates with a minimum ROA of 1.50% or the commitment to do what it takes to get there," said Jody Hudgins, president and chief executive officer of West Coast Bank in Sarasota.

Mr. Hudgins said he is scouting in Tampa and Orlando for bankers who want to establish a service center that would handle most back-office tasks, such as check clearing, data processing, auditing, and compliance work. The service would be jointly owned by the member banks.

Mr. Hudgins is aiming to form the cooperative within the next six months, he said.

The idea of the cooperative and other forms of overhead sharing have resurfaced among community bankers, industry experts said.

"What we're seeing are community bankers looking for ways to save money, and this may be one alternative," said Steven Carson, president of the Carson Medlin Co., a Tampa-based investment banking firm. "Maybe co-ops can capture the backroom savings without the additional valuation and social issues you see in forming a bank holding company."

Renewed interest in cooperatives may have been triggered in part by the 1992 acquisition of First Florida Bank in Tampa by Barnett Banks Inc., analysts said. First Florida was a major provider of data processing for community banks in the area.

Not everyone Mr. Hudgins has spoken with, which includes officials at Terrace Bank of Florida in Tampa, Port St. Lucie National Bank, and Peoples State Bank of New Port Richey, shares his level of enthusiasm.

Edward Heveran, president and chairman of Peoples State Bank, said he had been approached about forming a holding company with other area banks as another way of saving on overhead costs. He generally opposes such ideas.

"Independent bankers are just that, they're independent," he said. "And they don't like to give it up."

Mr. Heveran said he has been through this once before.

In the 1960s he was involved in setting up a holding company with other banks in the Chicago area, and, while the idea made sense at first, costs spiraled and management issues emerged that eventually broke the holding company apart.

Despite the difficulties in forming and maintaining a cooperative, proponents of the concept believe the positives outweigh the negatives. The economies of scale created through such arrangements, along with the greater control bankers have over the products than they had with correspondent banking, makes the coop a viable method of competing with the larger, often leaner, national banks, they said.

Bankers considering this idea can look to Corporate Data Services of Asheboro, N.C., a cooperative formed two years by three banks in the area.

All three banks have saved on operating costs, allowing them to expand into new service areas such as mortgage lending, mutual funds, and annuities, they said.

"We just realized that all of us should not be trying to build a new wheel,"said one of the founders, K. Reid Pollard, president and chief executive officer of Randolph Bank and Trust Co. "The idea is to achieve standardization of input, but specialization of output."

While one of the three banks, the Bank of Iredell in Statesville, is withdrawing because it is being acquired, Mr. Pollard envisions Corporate Data Services expanding to as many as 10 equity member banks within the next five years.

It hopes to attract nonmember clients as well, said its president, Kevin McManus.

Mr. Pollard said a number of bankers have spoken to him recently about the cooperative, and he believes they are in the process of forming their own.

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