Five years ago, Huntington Bancshares was lauded when it hired W. Lee Hoskins, then president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, to run its lead bank in Columbus, Ohio.

This week, Mr. Hoskins, who was viewed as the man-in-waiting for the company's top post, surprised analysts by calling it quits.

In a press release, Huntington said Mr. Hoskins, a trained economist, would not renew his contract as chairman and chief executive of Huntington National Bank in November. "Instead, he will pursue other career interests after July 1, 1997," read the company statement.

Before the announcement, Mr. Hoskins was viewed as the man likely to one day replace Frank Wobst, Huntington Bancshare's 62-year-old chief executive.

Now 51-year-old Zuheir Sofia, Huntington's president and chief operating officer, goes to the head of the line of likely successors to Mr. Wobst, according to analysts.

The usually outspoken Mr. Hoskins declined comment for this story.

He will continue on as chief executive - finishing the task of merging Huntington's five banks in Ohio, Florida, Indiana, Michigan, and West Virginia into one institution - until his resignation becomes effective next year. Huntington officials said his job would be filled from within the company.

Some analysts speculated Mr. Hoskins' heir apparent status at Huntington Bancshares may have been in jeopardy. Mr. Wobst has indicated no plans to retire, and his contract was recently extended through November 2001.

"It's probably stemming from the fact he doesn't see himself being chairman," said analyst Fred Cummings of McDonald & Co. "Lee's reasoning is, 'Hey, if I don't get to run the show maybe I should move on.'"

Others believe Mr. Hoskins may have simply had enough of the banking life after five years in Columbus. Prior to the Huntington job, he spent four years at the Cleveland Fed and had spent 11 years as an economist for the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia. Mr. Hoskins' only prior job at a commercial bank was as chief economist at Pittsburgh National Bank between jobs with the Fed banks.

"My sense is he's also something of a free spirit," said analyst Elmer Meszaros of Roulston & Co. in Cleveland. "Maybe the day-to-day managerial tasks of running a bank were less compelling."

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