By day the leaders of Cincinnati's three most prominent banking companies preside over a heated competition for customers and their loyalty.

By night they shake hands, roll up their sleeves, and stand as pillars of the community in support of charities and civic causes.

How many midsize cities still boast three such large and prosperous hometown banking companies? The people at Fifth Third Bancorp, Star Banc Corp., and Provident Financial Group take equal pride in their unusual market structure and in the collaborative spirit by which they give back to their city.

They also suggest the city is better off because they have not consolidated or been gobbled up by distant acquirers.

In the last year, the local banking leaders have championed a sales tax- passed by voters in March-that will finance two new sports stadiums and keep the Reds and Bengals in town. They have led a charge to revitalize downtown, which was rendered ghostly as businesses fled to the ksuburbs. They take turns chairing the United Way campaign and presiding over the Cincinnati Business Committee.

Naturally, these activities are seen as good for business. But in the Queen City, bankers describe their philanthropic and civic commitments in loftier terms-as social and civic prerequisites.

"You just sort of get involved as a matter of course," said George A. Schaefer Jr., president and chief executive officer of Fifth Third, the largest of the city's Big Three.

Mr. Schaefer, a third-generation Cincinnatian who went to high school with the county commissioner and is arguably the highest-profile banker in town, said he keeps a close eye on what Star and Provident, No. 2 and No. 3 in the market, are doing, in both banking and community work.

If Procter & Gamble - the largest corporation in Cincinnati-or one of the other banks makes a donation or takes a leadership role, Mr. Schaefer will gauge Fifth Third's move accordingly.

"It just happened with the Children's Museum," Mr. Schaefer said. "They said, 'What are you guys going to do, because we've got to know what the other guys are going to do.' Everybody sort of knows that if Procter does this, we're going to do this."

Mr. Schaefer's community role may seem quaint to bankers in other big cities. He said he devotes 10% to 15% of his time to "causes" and serves on a dozen boards of directors, including the Chamber of Commerce, the University of Cincinnati, and the Children's Hospital Medical Center.

Jerry A. Grundhofer, chairman, president, and CEO of Star, who moved in four years ago from California, said he has been astounded by the team spirit among competitors.

"In darn near all the situations, business leaders-bankers, industrialists, whatever-seem to come together after hours for the needs of the community, which is unlike what I was familiar with before," said Mr. Grundhofer, who previously was vice chairman of BankAmerica Corp. of San Francisco. "It is unique-we work much more closely than I would have thought."

When he was new in town, Mr. Grundhofer quickly found himself overcommitted. He has scaled back to 13 or 14 boards of directors-he couldn't remember exactly. He said roughly 15 requests for donations or time commitments cross his desk each day. Some phone calls are from other bankers asking for pledges.

"I can separate business from what's right for the city," Mr. Grundhofer said. "If George (Schaefer) is running something, I'll contribute because it's the right thing. I want to see it be successful because I know the next one down the track will be mine."

Said Mr. Schaefer, "Everybody knows you're going to be the caller one day and the callee the next day."

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Mr. Schaefer, Mr. Grundhofer, and Provident president and chief executive officer Allen L. Davis meet infrequently. Most of their philanthropic dealmaking is done by telephone, through deputies, or at formal board meetings. But they have a rapport that contrasts with the cutthroat nature of the market.

"We'll see one another at dinner parties or fund-raising things," Mr. Davis said. "I think the only time we've all been together at a particular deal may have been at a Boy Scouts board of directors meeting."

On rare occasions, the rivalry takes a humorous twist. When Ralph S. "Mike" Michael left the chief executive post at PNC Bank Ohio and moved to PNC's Pittsburgh headquarters last year, Mr. Schaefer praised his skills as a banker and as a mediator in the local sports stadium controversy.

Then, Mr. Schaefer recalled, "I told him I would buy the shrimp at his going-away party."

But even as the bankers try to one-up each other, they more often than not take a back seat to Procter & Gamble Co.

"P & G looms bigger than life in Cincinnati, and I would think that the banks come in a strong second," said Thomas A. Luken, who represented the city for 15 years in the U.S. House of Representatives.

"The Cincinnati banks, as far as I would observe, operate in a collective way more than in an individual way. I don't see them individually stepping out to make a name in the convention center or something."

It was the state treasurer who took the lead role in the recent Ohio River floods, leaving chest-deep waters in the parking lot of Cinergy Field (formerly Riverfront Stadium), where the sports teams now play. Rallied by the treasurer, the banks offered flood victims expedited loans and help in recovering financial records.

Bankers also were involved in the recent decision to double the size of the convention center. And they did their part on behalf of other projects: a planned aquarium, a steamship exhibition, an underground railroad museum.

"Very simply, this is a very cohesive community in terms of voluntarism, and I think everybody puts competition and business outside the door," said Bob Wehling, senior vice president at Procter & Gamble.

Mr. Wehling said he has never heard bankers mention their rivalries when the subject at hand is the community. He cited a recent meeting in which John Haller, Mr. Michael's replacement at PNC Bank Ohio, led a task force to reorient the United Way campaign toward children. Several banks were represented but no one made anything of it.

"I honestly don't recall in my 35-plus years in the community a competitive subject coming up, or a bank saying, 'I'm only willing to be involved in this effort if the other three or four banks aren't involved,"' Mr. Wehling said.

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Banks based out of town, notably PNC and Banc One Corp., also recognize the importance of being perceived as local and neighborly.

Back in 1994, top executives at Bank One Cincinnati sat down to draw up a five-year plan for community involvement. Their aim was to boost the Columbus-based bank from seventh in the market to third or fourth.

The plan laid out a product strategy, but the bankers considered a marketing component more important: which charities and civic groups to sponsor, which boards to sit on.

"If you don't play in that arena, you're not going to do business in Cincinnati," said Michael T. Vea, president and chief executive officer of Bank One Cincinnati.

Mr. Vea sought advice from community leaders about causes to back and how he could translate those affiliations into a better corporate image. He wanted a "nice mix of sports, education, and the arts"-a well-balanced portfolio of commitments.

To tackle the issue of "reputation management," Mr. Vea hired Dorsey W. Jones, who was a marketing executive at Delta Air Lines for 30 years and had retired to work as a Cincinnati realtor. Mr. Jones-who is now the bank's public relations director and president of its northern Kentucky operations-began shouldering many community commitments, leaving Mr. Vea freer to run the bank.

Mr. Jones is chairman of the Convention and Visitors' Bureau, the Northern Kentucky United Way campaign, and the University of Cincinnati fund drive. He is also on the boards of the cystic fibrosis campaign, the Cincinnati zoo, and many other organizations.

"We not only look for involvement, but we look for leadership involvement," Mr. Jones said. "I'd much rather lead a committee than be a committee member. That's where the visibility comes in."

Between the two of them, Mr. Vea and Mr. Jones try to cover all bases. "We want to make sure we're on the civic side, we're on the charitable side," Mr. Jones said.

Something seems to be working: Bank One has risen to fifth in market share, trailing PNC and the local Big Three.

Mr. Vea, who moved to Cincinnati in 1991 after living in Chicago and Indianapolis, still marvels at the way things work: "I could be out at a call competing with George (Schaefer) in the afternoon, and at night we're together working on a project."

"The competition here is much more fierce than it would be in Indianapolis or some other place where all the banks are owned by out-of- state players, where there isn't that hometown pride," Mr. Schaefer said.

At the same time, Cincinnati's bankers pride themselves on their no- frills image. Fifth Third has a skin-flint reputation when it comes to costs; all of the three are among the national leaders in efficiency ratio.

Fifth Third's annual sales award is called the Clem Buenger Shoe Leather Award, named for Mr. Schaefer's predecessor.

"The competition manifests itself in the numbers, the performance of these banks," Mr. Schaefer said. "If you look at the productivity numbers, you find these three banks do very well and our shareholders do very well. Good competition keeps you sharp."

Mr. Grundhofer called Cincinnati "as competitive as any place I've ever been." Mr. Vea deemed it "the leanest marketplace in terms of price."

Mr. Davis of Provident said the competition is "so fierce that it really makes you focus on having a top-performing bank."

Both Star and Provident have been mentioned as takeover candidates. Fifth Third did make a hostile overture to Star a few years back, only to drop it because of complications in Ohio banking laws, Mr. Schaefer said.

Provident, which is controlled by the reclusive financier Carl Lindner, set out in 1994 to "completely reengineer the bank" in hopes of staving off the possibility of a takeover, Mr. Davis said. It set up a national mortgage company that offers such a wide range of terms that it claims to refuse no applicants; it has identified its most profitable customers; it set up a bank card system called Meritvalu that gives people incentives to shop at certain retailers.

In May-the month it changed its name from Provident Bancorp to Provident Financial Group-the company announced plans to move into an additional building downtown with 350 new workers.

The project is one of several in store for the clean but sparse downtown area. Fifth Third recently paid $5.5 million for the air rights to Fountain Square West, a development that abuts the bank's tower and has sat as a parking lot for years. It is slated to host high-end retailers like Tiffany's.

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"The best thing we do for the community isn't philanthropy," Mr. Schaefer said. "It's the fact that we have three independent banks. The best thing that all of us do here isn't through what we give to the United Way, it's that we employ a lot of people and pay a hell of a lot of tax."

Mr. Schaefer said Fifth Third, whose spokesman is local baseball hero Johnny Bench, employs 6,500 and pays more than $200 million in taxes. Other companies have fled to Kentucky for tax breaks, he said.

"If Fifth Third weren't here, if we were bought by Deutsche Bank or somebody, that employment level wouldn't be here, our level of commitment wouldn't be here," Mr. Schaefer said.

At "banks that used to be here that were acquired by the out- of-town banks," he said, "that commitment somehow diminishes."

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Cincinnati is ethnically diverse. Norman I. Barron, a lifelong resident and prominent lawyer, credits the bankers with giving equal lending consideration to all.

Mr. Barron recently led an effort to build a new retirement home for elderly Jews. The Jewish community raised $18 million, and the financing came from Fifth Third.

"It was a break-even mortgage loan," Mr. Barron said. "You could say, 'Well, that's just good business,' but by the same token, the other banks weren't lining up to do it."

Bankers agree there are far more opportunities to give than there are resources to commit. But the current vibrancy of the local economy means that few worthy causes go unfunded. Unemployment is low, myriad public works projects are under way, and the city is even angling to bid for the Olympic Games.

All those factors make for a happy banking climate.

"I don't mind the competition-I think it's good for the community, for business, and consumers," Mr. Grundhofer said.

Asked about his counterparts at the other banks, Mr. Grundhofer said he respected them all. "They're great bankers," he said. "I just wish there weren't so many of them."

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