Elevator rides used to be a joy for one bank's investor relations director.

The company lists its stock price in the elevator, letting employees keep tabs on their options and 401(k) savings. "When the stock price was going up, I would get all the pats on the back," the director said. "Now I get growls."

The director, who requested anonymity, is one of many bank investor relations managers whose lives have been transformed by the bear market in bank stocks. Instead of spending time recruiting new institutional investors, they are focused on talking the old ones into holding onto their shares. They are fielding more calls from disgruntled retail investors, and spending a lot more time pleading the case that their stock is undervalued.

"What the downturn has done is make us realize our mission is more important than it ever may have been," said Albert T. Potas, senior vice president at Old Kent Financial Corp. "The mission is to heighten the investor awareness of your company as a viable investment."

At the nation's mid-capitalization banks, this hasn't been easy, even though many have delivered consistent earnings-per-share growth. Investor relations managers say they spend a lot of time and effort on calming investors who have seen their personal fortunes shrink along with the banks' stock prices.

Retail investors, less schooled in market dynamics than institutional shareholders, tend to pick up the telephone more often, Mr. Potas said. "We are getting more phone calls and questions from retail investors. In periods of price appreciation they have been relatively silent."

And those retail investors have one basic question.

"When I pick the phone, they say 'What is going on with the stock price?'" said Kerry Calaiaro, senior vice president of investor relations at Summit Bancorp in Princeton, N.J.

There has also been "a shift in dynamics" in managing relations with institutional investors, said Marty Mosby of First Tennessee National Corp. "There has been a move out by growth- and momentum-type investors. Value investors are coming back into the stocks."

The new investment is welcome, but it raises another potential issue. If the shares don't rise quickly enough, value investors are sometimes the first ones to pressure companies to sell.

Indeed, with merger mania still fresh in investors' memories, a deal is what many investors are looking for. "We get questions like, `When is the company is going to sell the bank?' " Ms. Calaiaro said, pointing out that the bank's mission is to stay independent. "I don't answer M&A questions," she added.

Investor relations departments have launched a multimedia defense, barraging shareholders with e-mail, company newsletters, telephones, shareholder letters, and conference calls.

For Ms. Calaiaro, the drill includes putting the performance of Summit's stock in context - comparing it to the bank indexes for example - and explaining how macroeconomic factors such as rising interest rates do not adversely affect Summit's earnings. Though Summit's interest rate margins actually increased in the fourth quarter, its price has come under pressure with the rest of the bank sector.

Summit's stock price was at $25.125 in late trading on Friday, 44% below its 52-week high.

Though 75% of Summit's revenues are based on net interest income, Ms. Calaiaro is quick to point out that the bank is adding fee-based products, especially through its financial counselors. She said the bank is also well-hedged against interest rates because it added deposits at a rapid rate in 1999, leaving the bank with a loan-to-deposit ratio of 0.9%. That helps shield the bank from interest rate increases because it is less dependent on more costly wholesale funding in order to make loans.

But many investors are impatient with detailed explanations, and are ready to sell when the stock starts falling. "You kind of make sure you are prepared, that you can give them a two-sentence answer that is going to make them feel better," Mr. Mosby said.

If time permits, Mr. Mosby said his goal is to get investors to look at how the company is performing.

"It is a challenging time these days because everybody is focused on the stock price," Mr. Mosby said. "We try to give a large dose of grounding in reality - what is going on with the fundamentals, the profits, the growth."

Indeed, banks like First Tennessee - despite solid earnings-per-share growth - have seen that message fall on deaf ears. Though the Memphis-based bank had 19% earnings- per-share growth in 1999 - and has projections of 14% in 2000 - its stock is trading at a multiple of only 12. Since its 1999 high of $44.875, the stock has fallen 48%.

All the talk about company fundamentals has taken away from the other duties they performed during a bull market in bank stocks, many investor relations people said.

"It has definitely substituted for going out and recruiting new shareholders," Mr. Mosby said. "You try to focus on keeping your current shareholders and getting them to understand what is happening."

"Eventually there will be better days," Mr. Mosby said. "That is what we keep looking forward to."

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