PEACHTREE CITY, Ga. - W. Ronald Duffey never would have landed the business of a Methodist church being built here if a community bank down the road in LaGrange hadn't referred the minister to him.

Why would the LaGrange banker pass along such a highly desirable customer to a competing bank only 40 miles away? Because the two banks are both affiliates of $6.1 billion-asset Synovus Financial Corp. in Columbus.

"If you need a plumber, you can always look in the Yellow Pages and find one, and that's fine," says William C. Crowley, vice president in charge of business development at Peachtree National. "But if you have a brother who is a plumber, that's a big difference. He's family."

A sharing of resources, expertise, and customers among Synovus' 34 banks in Georgia, Alabama, and Florida is one of a host of advantages Peachtree National cites in describing - and justifying - its acquisition by the holding company a year ago.

But how much has the $117 million-asset bank really gained by giving up its independence and becoming part of a super community bank holding company located more than 80 miles away? The question is one that many small bank executives are likely to ask as they ponder the future of their independent institutions in the rapidly consolidating banking industry.

The Peachtree National example provides a case study for what happens in the first year after a typical well-run community bank is acquired. Not surprisingly, Peachtree officials have nothing but enthusiastic praise for the move.

"On at least three occasions in the past year, I have been asked this question by other bankers, and I have told them all they need to hear: 'I would do it again,'" says Mr. Duffey, chief executive officer and president, who helped found the bank nine years ago.

But not every small bank has the option of becoming part of a super community bank like Synovus. Since Synovus allows its affiliates to run autonomously, it has to make certain at the outset that target banks do not require changes, that they will mesh into the Synovus system.

"If you're going to keep the board and management in place, the selection of the bank becomes much more difficult," says Ronald R. Glancz, a banking lawyer with Venable, Baetjer, Howard & Civiletti in Washington, D.C. "It becomes much more subjective. You're not just looking for raw materials."

It can boil down to personalities, and in the case of Peachtree National, officials there felt they had known Synovus all their lives. Without such a meeting of minds, such deals are fraught with pitfalls.

"They are the epitome of fine southern gentlemen," Mr. Duffey says. "They are a cut above, and we wanted to be part of that."

Peachtree National feels the association has been a win-win for everyone. In short, selling to Synovus has made the bank more competitive by giving it access to an array of resources from a large multiservice financial company, while at the same time allowing it to retain its local community bank characteristics, Mr. Duffey says.

Its name, management, board of directors, and operating policies all remain untouched. Only two employees - an auditor on contract and the chief financial officer - were let go as a result of the deal. One Synovus director sits on Peachtree National's board, but it's a nonvoting position. As for Peachtree National's loan policy, Synovus reviews the bank's loans only after the bank has made the initial lending decisions on its own.

The bank's now dramatically expanded product line, which includes brokerage, trust, mortgage, and credit card services, has enabled Peachtree National to go up against a handful of national brokerage firms that have set up offices in the highly affluent Peachtree City, Mr. Duffey says.

The bank can handle anyone's business now, he says, adding, "I couldn't say that last year."

For each of the customers that Peachtree National refers to Synovus' various financial service entities, it receives a cut of the profits. One of those entities, Total System Services Inc., is one of the largest credit card processing companies in the world.

Loan participations, in both size and frequency, are now almost unlimited. For example, the bank recently participated in a $20 million loan for a company to purchase the remaining undeveloped land in its hometown, about 2,500 acres. Peachtree National lent its limit, $1.6 million, and Synovus put up the remaining $18.4 million.

Previously, Peachtree National's largest loan participations were about $2 million. It made only a couple of those a year, all of which were time- consuming and often difficult to coordinate, Mr. Duffey says. The recent $20 million loan came together in a couple of weeks.

As for the original 468 shareholders of the closely held bank, they now own stock - with a current market price of about $24 - traded on the New York Stock Exchange. Before, with no market makers, those interested in buying or selling Peachtree National stock had to find each other.

When the bank first announced the Synovus acquisition in November 1993, several of the original stockholders called Mr. Duffe y, angry that he was selling out and fearful that the bank would lose its community bank identity. The other two competing banks based in Peachtree City trumpeted the news, spreading the word that the town was losing one of its local banks.

Mr. Duffey responded with a paid advertisement in the local newspaper.

"I told them that community banking in Peachtree wasn't getting worse but getting better," Mr. Duffey says. "We still sponsor the same baseball team."

An examination of the bank's balance sheet, from both before and after the acquisition, generally supports Mr. Duffey's sentiments. The key ratios, illustrating profitability and efficiency, for the most part improved, particularly in the most recent second quarter.

After falling steadily since the merger closed last June, return on average equity shot up to 17.42% last quarter, compared with 10.29% before the acquisition. Return on average assets fluctuated in the last 12 months, but in the second quarter reached its highest level in at least two years - a respectable 1.58%.

The bank had few nonperforming loans before the acquisition, and now they are almost nonexistent, though figures for the last quarter were not available. Nonperformers as a percentage of total loans declined from 0.47% before the acquisition to a mere 0.03% as of March 31.

The bank has grown since being acquired. About a month after joining the Synovus family, Peachtree National was told that the holding company had bought a nearby $35 million-asset bank and that it would be merged into Peachtree National. That new bank's president became a Peachtree National executive vice president, and other personnel were merged in as well.

Partly as a result, the number of employees has increased by 12 since the Synovus acquisition to, 72 - and they're being paid better as well. The average salary has risen to $37,000 from $29,000 a year ago.

Becoming more efficient, however, may take a bit longer. The efficiency ratio in just the last quarter dropped to 59.12%, which is slightly better than average for its peers. The high performers in the peer group have a 52.7% ratio.

The net noninterest margin, or "carry," which measures how efficiently a bank manages its resources to make a return, was still not as high as average performers in its peer group, based on March 1995 numbers. And core deposits per branch were not as high as the peer group average.

"The traditional theory is that a company acquires a bank that has big potential to achieve better efficiency and to cut employees, but that hasn't happened here," says Chris D. Pearce, vice president at US Banking Alliance Inc., an Atlanta-based consulting firm. "It looks like they have kept everything in place.

"I think it would be encouraging for other banks to see that they (Synovus) didn't go in there and whack the number of employees," she adds. "They obviously saw that Peachtree is running a good shop, so they let them keep running a good shop."

Synovus officials confirm this.

Says Stephen L. Burts, president and chief financial officer of Synovus, "Clearly, we could operate our banks less expensively, but we don't feel that less expensive automatically means more profits. Having an effective CEO in place there is much more important."

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