To improve efficiency and customer service, SunTrust Banks will consolidate its 27 bank charters into a single Georgia charter on Jan. 1, the company said Tuesday.

Atlanta-based SunTrust has charters in Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, and Virginia. It has banking offices in those states as well as Alabama, Maryland, and the District of Columbia.

The move would mean fewer "people serving in administrative and legal functions relating to running the separate entities," said SunTrust spokesman Barry Koling. "As a result, there will be expanded responsibilities elsewhere in the company serving customers."

The consolidation would reduce annual expenses for regulatory reporting by $15 million, Mr. Koling said. The total savings should be more, he added.

In addition, the consolidation would enable SunTrust to borrow money more cheaply and to be more consistent and standardized in its asset and liability management, Mr. Koling said. Banking companies across the country have been consolidating charters at a healthy pace since 1994, when Congress passed an interstate branching law. Some, such as Bank One Corp., have run into problems in the process, as the organizational changes required a reconsideration of decentralized management principles.

To smooth its transition, SunTrust named Theodore Hoepner to head a new program to balance revenue growth and service quality with improved efficiency. Mr. Hoepner, 58, executive vice president and the head of SunTrust Bank of Florida, reports to SunTrust chairman and chief executive officer L. Phillip Humann.

Mr. Hoepner's appointment shows that the consolidation issue is "getting attention at the right level of the organization," said Harold Schroeder, a bank analyst at Schroder & Co. As SunTrust shifts from a "local bank psychology" to a "line-of-business structure," getting the heads of the 27 individual banks to go along with the change becomes critical, he said.

Because Mr. Hoepner heads one of the banks himself, the process will be easier, Mr. Schroeder said. "Having one of your own (in charge of the initiative) is an advantage, as opposed to someone from the corporation."

Mr. Hoepner was also named chairman of SunTrust Service Corp., the subsidiary providing operations and technical support for the $93 billion-asset company.

SunTrust said it does not anticipate layoffs as part of the consolidation. Instead, employees will be shifted from administrative to customer service positions. SunTrust has not yet decided which areas of customer service to beef up, Mr. Koling said. "It is premature to talk about specific implications in terms of people, units, or functions," he added. One bank analyst, who requested anonymity, said the consolidation would inevitably entail some job losses. "SunTrust will try to minimize the impact," he said. "But if you're making a bank more efficient, you probably don't need as many people."

Wall Street analysts applauded SunTrust's move, but some said it should have happened sooner. The delay stemmed from a "strong, decentralized corporate culture," said Michael Mayo, an analyst at Credit Suisse First Boston Corp. Although that structure tends to be good for employee morale and customer service, the charter reduction will result in a more streamlined operation, Mr. Mayo said.

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