Regions Financial Corp.'s shares took a hit Tuesday as the sudden departure of three senior risk executives fueled speculation that the Birmingham, Ala., company's problems might be deepening.
Though some analysts concluded that Regions was simply doing a routine management shuffle, the $133 billion-asset lender failed to quell uncertainty after the surprise resignation of Chief Risk Officer Bill Wells — a member of the five-person executive team — and the departures of two top lieutenants: Michael Willoughby, director of credit risk, who Regions said retired, and Tom Neely, the head of problem assets, who the press release simply said "has left the company."
The company's stock closed down 4.52%, at $5.92 per share, as investors were unsatisfied with the official explanation from an institution that has lost money for six straight quarters due to missteps in managing risk, particularly in commercial lending.
It stressed that the changes are "not the result of any … additional problem loan" issues. A Regions spokesman said it had no comment beyond the press release.
"I think there is more going on to this," said Kevin Fitzsimmons, a managing director at Sandler O'Neill & Partners LP. "Unfortunately, there is just not a lot of color on why it's happening. … If things are not getting worse, why would you be getting rid of your risk management leadership at a time like this?"
His theory: Regulators may not be happy with Regions' risk management, so the board decided to make changes.
David Turner, Regions' CFO, said during the Bank of America Merrill Lynch 2010 banking conference Tuesday that the board and Chief Executive Grayson Hall felt the company needed "somebody new with a different perspective" because the "pace of change needs to pick up" on risk and credit problems.
The company has a "short list" of candidates for risk chief — including a front-runner — to succeed Wells, Turner said, and it is "our hope" to name a successor as soon as yearend.
"I know there is a question about timing," he said. "As to why, what I can tell you? It's never a good time to make changes like this."
In response to a question, he said, "Clearly the board made this decision. The regulators did not."
The company, with 1,774 branches in 16 states in the Southeast, had setbacks getting a handle on its problem loans in the third quarter because real estate markets are still softening. About $662 million more of loans stopped collecting interest — the biggest quarterly increase in at least a year — as more condominium and single-family-home builders went bust. Regions also had to set aside 16.7% more to cover losses on distressed-asset sales.
Wells had been with the company since 2004 and seemed to have the confidence of Hall, who succeeded Dowd Ritter as CEO in April after a transition that began a few months earlier. Hall retained Wells as an executive team member and chief risk officer. Hall made one substantial change, though, when he announced his management team in February, naming Turner CFO.
Analysts were divided about the significance of this shuffle's timing, eight months into Hall's tenure.
Though it is common for new CEOs to hire new people, Fitzsimmons said, Hall had the chance to make a change involving Wells when the CFO turnover was announced.
"Bill Wells has been the voice of the company on credit," Fitzsimmons said. "It's surprising."
He said Monday's announcement is suspect because Regions does not have a successor for Wells — his duties and those of the others are to be overseen by two other senior executives as the company searches for successors.
Marty Mosby, an analyst at Guggenheim Securities LLC, said the change makes sense in the broader timetable of Regions' turnaround. It has been slowly bringing in new blood as it retreats from property lending and aggressively cuts costs, he said.
"If Grayson wants to improve his management team, now is a good time," Mosby said. "He's moving down his list — there is no way it's possible to do everything at one time."
Two other large banking companies shook up their risk teams as well on Tuesday, though their moves set off no alarms.
Nancy Shanik was named chief risk officer at Citizens Financial Group Inc., the Providence, R.I., subsidiary of Royal Bank of Scotland Group PLC. Shanik previously was a managing director at Alvarez & Marsal. Her boss, Jay Cook, the chief risk officer for the Americas at Royal Bank of Scotland, previously oversaw risk at Citizens.
SunTrust Banks Inc. in Atlanta named Steve Shriner chief consumer credit officer; he was manager of corporate investor relations.
He succeeds Neil Clerico, who is now the consumer banking risk administration executive. Kristopher Dickson — previously a business planning and financial strategies executive — is now corporate investor relations manager.