A friend of ours recently closed his last account at a bank where he had done business for 30 years. At one time he had numerous accounts totaling more than $750,000. Here's what he told us.

When I first moved to town 30 years ago, I was beginning my career at a good salary. My wife was pregnant, and we had found a house we could afford. My boss did business at First National (not its real name), which had an office just down the street.

So, armed with an introduction, I dropped in and came away with a checking account and mortgage application. My wife added a savings account. Our $12,000 mortgage at 7% was approved, we rented a safe deposit box to put our documents in, and we were launched financially.

A few years later, we each inherited enough money from grandparents to make us think about investing. We met with a trust officer at First National who outlined a growth investment plan, and we were under way in the stock market.

From then on, we met once a year with our trust officer to review our portfolio, which eventually grew to $75,000.

When Sara was born, we opened a savings account in her name to save for her college education. We did the same for our new son, Mark, a few years later. Both accounts grew over the years to about $15,000 apiece.

Our first house was getting pretty small with two preschool-aged children, so we looked around for our dream house. We'd always wanted to live in the country and have lots of space - a big garden, room for our dog to run, maybe even a tennis court someday.

Together with three other couples we bought 75 acres of farmland, mapped it out in large parcels, and put in a road. We borrowed $10,000, our share for the land and the road, from First National.

Then came the new house with a $30,000 mortgage. A few years later, we investigate in a working farm and got a second $50,000 mortgage from First National.

We really liked First National. It was small enough to be friendly (about $100 million in assets 30 years ago) but big enough to have the services we needed. The chief trust officer handled our portfolio himself; the tellers knew our names -- and so did the president and the chairman of the board.

This was one of the reasons we bought the bank's stock whenever we had a little extra money. We bought stock for our children, too. It was a good investment and grew to over $60,000 before the kids were through college.

When credit cards became available, we got ours from First National, and even though we suffered through some computer glitches, we never thought of going elsewhere. We just called Gary, the credit card officer and he straightened things out.

Loan for Rental Property

Another mortgage came our way when we bought a student rental house convenient to the nearby university where Sara was enrolled. First National put up the $25,000.

Things began to change about 10 years ago when our bank was acquired by an out-of-town bank holding company. At first we didn't notice much differences, even though the name on our checks and statements changed to First Commercial National (again, not its real name).

Nor did we expect changes, because FCN told us shareholders that there wouldn't be any. Besides that, FCN repeatedly advertised that it was really a "community bank dedicated to the people and business of the communities we serve." We believed it -- at first.

An Ally Retires

Then our trust officer took early retirement. I went to his retirement party, and he didn't look happy. It seemed more like a wake than party. The trust officer wasn't the only somber face. His contemporaries at FCN looked worried, and in fact during the next five years most of them retired or left the bank.

The tellers were different, too. Many of them now asked me for my ID, which I didn't like very much. Just when I would get to know a teller, a new one would take her place and I would have to start all over again.

Although FCN continued to proclaim that its subsidiaries were community banks, it didn't act like it. Within five years of the merger, the annual report revealed that 12 of the 29 bank subsidiaries had been absorbed into other subsidiaries and the boards of directors eliminated.

Empty Promise

I talked with one director who had been merged out of office. He said he had been told that one year after his bank became a branch, he would be put on the board of directors of the parent bank. But he never was.

On a more professional level, the service at our bank gradually deteriorated. We decided to put an addition on our house and refinance it. Our original mortgage was almost paid off; the tax laws had changed to make only mortgage interest deductible, so it seemed sensible to enlarge our $5,000 mortgage to 80,000 to pay for the addition.

By then the house was assessed at well over $ 200,000. So, with our long relationship (including three mortgages, a good-sized IRA balance, and a profit-sharing plan of over $400,000 with the trust department), we figured the bank would treat us differently than a stranger who just walked in.

Wrong. The bank quoted the usual rates, points, and fees, and acted as if didn't care whether we got the mortgage there or not.

Shopping Around

For the first time, we checked with another bank and found that their rates and terms, including closing fees, were similar to or a bit better than those at our bank, even though we had no other accounts with them. Also, they said they would really like our business, called us several times with various options, and mailed us information.

So we said good-bye to our old bank on this one and took a mortgage with the other bank. We expected that someone at FCN would ask us why we hadn't gone ahead with the new mortgage. But no one did.

About this same time, we got a form letter from FCN that said it was "adjusting" credit card fees:

"The annual charges on your credit card with us may or may not be increased this year unless you qualify for one of our special programs."

Getting the Runaround

My wife called the toil-free number given on the letter to find out what the new fees and the special programs were. We figured as 25-year customers we would qualify for something good.

"What bank are you calling about?" the operator asked.

My wife told her. Then the operator wanted to know what city and state branch was in.

With that out of the way, my wife said, "I'd like to know what our annual credit card fee will be and whether we qualify for your special programs."

"You will have to ask your own bank about that," replied the operator. "We don't have that kind of information here."

"Where are you located?" my wife asked.

The operator named a large city 1,500 miles away. Some community bank!

Local Bank Also Unhelpful

Dismayed but undaunted, my wife called our bank. But there also, people didn't know whether our fees had been increased. And no, we didn't qualify for their special program since neither of us was over 65.

That's right. We didn't qualify, even though we had been customers of the bank for more than 25 years and had accounts that by then totaled about $750,000, without the $80,000 mortgage. When our FCN credit card came up for renewal, we canceled it.

A few weeks later, when several of our certificates of deposit matured, instead of automatically renewing them, we checked out rates at other banks. FCN was lower than most of them by two points or more. We transferred about $60,000 in CDs to the higher-paying bank. No one at FCN said a word to us.

Rival Bank Makes Nice Offer

Sometime later, the bank that held our new mortgage contacted us about a special program. If we opened a $1,000-balance checking account and a savings account, it would give us a free safe deposit box. And since we were over 50, it would pay interest on the checking account and not charge us for check printing.

We closed our FCN safe deposit box (then costing $60 a year) and stopped writing checks on our account so we could close that, too.

A month or so after I closed the checking account, we received a statement from FCN showing an overdraft and a service charge. I figured it was a computer error since the account had been closed more than 30 days and there were no checks outstanding.

I ignored it. But the next statement had another service charge added to the first. I went into the bank fuming. But I should have known I had done wrong.

I had failed to close the overdraft protection on the defunct account. Since FCN considered that the account was still open -- and had zero funds -- when it billed me 6 for the monthly statement, it also lent me $100 to cover the $6 overdraft created by the statement charge.

We were now two statements into this, and the negative balance was growing. The bank made it clear that I was wrong in not knowing to cancel the overdraft protection when I closed the account, but it generously offered to forgive the charges -- a canny move since it was never going to collect them.

Walking Away Was Easy

After that, I felt no guilt about closing FCN accounts. We still had two mortgages there, but when the properties were sold, we put the proceeds in the new bank. Finally, the only thing left was the profit-sharing plan, which had grown to about $500,000.

The trust officer who replaced my original adviser called one day to suggest I roll the plan into an IRA deposit account to save annual fees. FCN was charging about $900 a year to send out the account statement.

This seemed stiff, but the account was growing and inertia kept me from looking around. Now my trust officer suggested I leave the trust department where I had been doing business for 30 years.

So I looked around, and what I found was an investment officer at another bank who sketched out a program of growth and income substantially exceeding what I'd been getting at FCN.

A Better Deal

Barring an original broker's fee, there were only nominal annual charges. The broker's fee was earned back during the first year's increased earnings. And the account still grew by more than it had at FCN.

So that's the end of the long relationship. Except that when I was closing out the profit-sharing plan, the president did say he wanted to talk with me about investing it with FCN. He never followed through.

Would I have stayed? Maybe.

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