KeyCorp's new chief financial officer, K. Brent Somers, knows a little bit about fast-growing national retailers.

He was the top financial officer of LensCrafters from 1987 to 1990, a period that saw the eye-care subsidiary of U.S. Shoe Corp. grow from $140 million in sales and 150 stores to $550 million in sales and 350 stores.

"It was a great experience at a time when the whole optical retail industry was changing dramatically," Mr. Somers said. "We were not the first player, but we were the most aggressive."

In 1990 he became chief financial officer of the parent company, which was sold last year.

The appointment of Mr. Somers, 47, who has no background in banking or financial services, is part of a pattern of hiring outsiders established over the past year and a half at $66 billion-asset KeyCorp.

Mr. Somers, who will join the Cleveland-based company as chief financial officer and senior executive vice president, will be part of the five- member management team reporting to president and chief executive Robert W. Gillespie.

Mr. Somers acknowledges there will be a learning curve in his new role, but he sees banking as not unlike other retail-oriented businesses.

"The environment changed in retail dramatically (during the late 1980s), and the direction in banking is changing," he said in an interview last week. "I think (KeyCorp) recognizes competition is also outside the banking industry."

Mr. Somers was hired by U.S. Shoe, a Cincinnati-based retail, wholesale, and manufacturing company, upon graduation from Brigham Young University in 1975. He was part of the management team that sold U.S. Shoe, which also owned Easy Spirit and Casual Corner., to Luxottica Group of Italy last May.

After the sale, several companies were interested in hiring him, said Peter Crist, a Chicago-based headhunter.

But Mr. Somers said he chose KeyCorp because it met his expectations, which included being an integral part of the company's direction.

"I did not want to be just a number cruncher," Mr. Somers said. "I want to be a participant at the table when strategy is discussed."

Ultimately, it was KeyCorp's management team that sold Mr. Somers on joining a banking company.

"I would say when I was first approached I was a little cautious, but intrigued," Mr. Somers said.

Despite Mr. Somers' inexperience with banking, analysts said the appointment was a good one.

"If you look at LensCrafters and its success in growing to a national organization, and you look at the strategic planning involved, his experience could be important to KeyCorp," said William McGinnis, with Robert W. Baird & Co., Milwaukee.

Former U.S. Shoe chief executive Bannus Hudson said Mr. Somers will complement Mr. Gillespie and his management team. "I think it's an excellent union," he said. "The skills he brings will more than compensate for the banking skills he doesn't have."

Mr. Somers has a good business mind and was a part of every major decision made by the optical retailer in his three years as chief financial officer, Mr. Hudson added.

Mr. Somers' appointment is among several KeyCorp has made as it attempts to establish itself as a consumer-oriented retail bank.

Marketing wizard Stephen Cone, who formerly worked for Citicorp and American Express, joined as executive vice president and chief marketing officer in July 1994.

Last June, Thomas Helfrich, executive vice president of human resources, came from Travelers, and Julia Adamson, senior vice president and director of corporate marketing, from Pepsico; Steven J. Hucan, senior vice president and director of credit card services, joined in July after working for Sears' Dean Witter; and John E. Kohl, executive vice president of capital markets and Key Investments Inc., joined last April from McDonald & Company Securities, Cleveland.

Subscribe Now

Access to authoritative analysis and perspective and our data-driven report series.

14-Day Free Trial

No credit card required. Complete access to articles, breaking news and industry data.