The 147-member Community Bankers of Florida is bucking the trade group merger trend.

Group members are afraid that their small chorus will be drowned out by bigger banks if they were to join forces with the 368-member Florida Bankers Association.

Members of the Florida Bankers Association include regional giants like Barnett Banks of Florida that have distinctly different views than the smaller institutions on controversial issues like interstate branching.

Last month, the Community Bankers of Florida officially named Ms. Sam Cook, 43, executive director and instructed the banker-turned-lawyer to revitalize the organization, which has lost some membership over the past several years. The trade association had 193 members at the end of 1992; 224 at yearend 1991; and 237 at yearend 1990.

Defections over Merger Rumor

Several sources said the losses are not just the consequence' of industry mergers and failures. Former executive director Walter Law, who ran the trade group for 25 years, supposedly angered dozens of bankers who believed he was holding secret merger discussions with the Florida Bankers Association, the sources said. Those institutions resigned, the sources said.

Directors claim one or two members may have departed over what the directors describe as a misunderstanding.

Mr. Law, who remains with the group as its top lobbyist, said he never instigated merger discussions, just talks to coordinate lobbying efforts between the two trade groups.

"The word merger wasn't in my lexicon," said Mr. Law.

"Walter was opposed to a merger because he felt it would never work out," recalled Richard Martin, a past president of the group. Mr. Martin is the executive vice president and chief operating officer of American National Bank of Florida in Jacksonville.

Merger Discussions

Community Bankers of Florida's decision to go it alone flies in the face of a trend evident throughout the United States. In fact, the Florida League of Financial Institutions, which represents about 60 savings and loans, has been discussing merger for about a year now with the Florida Bankers Association, which is an affiliate of the American Bankers Association. The groups will meet later this month to decide whether to press ahead.

William Hussey, who has headed the S&L group for its entire 35 years and who is retiring at yearend, said the combination makes sense because thrifts are more like community banks these days and eventually will have the same federal regulator. He also said it makes more sense to lobby Congress and state legislatures with one voice, rather than many.

"That way the lawmakers can't play off one group against the other," he said.

Even though its membership is down to 147 members, Community Bankers of Florida is still considered among the stronger state banking organizations. Ms. Cook, who has been with the group for six months, said her goal is to make it even stronger by recruiting every community bank in Florida.

That possible universe of new members includes about 300 community banks that belong only to the Florida Bankers Association and 70 savings and loans.

Dues shouldn't be much of an obstacle. Community Bankers of Florida still charges what it did in the 1960s - an asset-based fee of $250 to $1,000 per year. One official from another trade group quipped that he couldn't cover his annual postage if he charged a like amount. Ms. Cook said the group has revenues from other sources to help fund its operations.

Ms. Cook said she's on the road one week a month to attract new members. "S&Ls need to belong to us because we have become More like each other," she said.

Ties with National Affiliate

Ms. Cook also is increasing the group's communication with its national affiliate, the Independent Bankers Association of America. IBAA offers an array of services the group hadn't taken advantage of in the past, she said.

The IBAA reaction: "Sam Cook is a breath of fresh air," said Kenneth Guenther, executive director of the organization.

Ms. Cook said she learned about the CBF position from a friend who brought a want ad placed by the association to her attention and added, Sam, it sounds like they want someone with your resume."

Mr. Law said he initiated the search because the trade group was evolving from a lobbying organization to more of a full-service trade group. He wanted to concentrate on lobbying, his favorite pastime. He's a political junkie of sorts. His wife is majority leader of the Florida House.

A Resume that Fit

The ad that Ms. Cook answered asked for applications from lawyers with management and business experience who could communicate persuasively.

Before becoming a lawyer in 1989, Ms. Cook had worked at Barnett Banks for nine and a half years. She started at a drive-in teller window and worked her way up to personnel director.

During her first four months at Community Bankers of Florida, she exhibited similar drive. She helped conduct a convention in Palm Beach that attracted about 400 people.

The staff consists of six full-time employees plus lobbyist Law.

She insists that there's a Place for more than one banking trade group in Florida. "There is room, and a need," she said.

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