Other than owner John McArthur, few knew the inner workings of Johnny Mac's Sporting Goods in Crestwood, Mo., so well as his lending officer at St. Louis-based Boatmen's Bancshares.

So when this officer moved to nearby Southwest Bank after NationsBank Corp.'s purchase of Boatmen's in 1997 and a subsequent merger with the former BankAmerica Corp., Mr. McArthur naturally followed him.

"It's important to make sure that your banker understands your needs so that he knows where your business is headed and he's willing to go along with you," said Mr. McArthur, who now has been using the same loan officer for about seven years.

Mr. McArthur isn't the only small-business owner to change banks after a merger.

A survey released in late May by the PSI Global market research firm in Tampa found that 71% of small-business owners banked with institutions that had recently gone through mergers.

Of those so affected, 10% said they had switched banks during the preceding year, and 14% said they planned to do so within a year. Those numbers reflect the highest rate of account defections and planned defections in at least a decade.

"Next to their spouse and their pastor, the most important relationship that small-business owners have is with their banker," said Robert Howden, executive director of the Texas branch of the National Federation of Independent Business.

Just ask Texas businessman Don Summers.

Within seven years of founding Austin Generator Inc., Mr. Summers used three community banks.

One by one, each was bought by a larger financial institution. Mr. Summers would stay with the new bank until he found the service inadequate, then he would move all his accounts to a new bank-and repeat the process.

"Bank mergers are a stumbling block for most small businesses because they've eliminated the personal relationship that must be maintained between a banker and a small businessman," said Mr. Summers, whose business is now 21 years old and has $1.5 million of annual sales. "My banker is not just my money shuffler but also my adviser."

Banks going through mergers often claim that increased size will beget more services. The problem, some say, is that small businesses often don't need scores of regional branches and don't qualify for larger lines of credit.

"These big banks kid themselves on that subject," said Andrew Baur, chairman of Southwest Bank's parent, $1.5 billion-asset Mississippi Valley Bankshares in St. Louis. "The fact that they have all these services necessary to the AT&T's of the world makes them think that they will be valuable to 'Joe's Widget Manufacturing Company.' A lot of those services are largely irrelevant to these smaller businesses."

Mark Williams, a spokesman for $614 billion-asset Bank of America Corp. in Charlotte, N.C., acknowledged that community banks sometimes have an edge in building relationships with small-business customers.

But he stressed that similar relationships can develop at Bank of America or other big banking companies. These companies also can help small businesses grow into large ones, he said.

"For a small-business owner, their banker is more than someone who just makes them a loan," Mr. Williams said. "We give them financial advice and financial services to increase their business. We're almost a business partner."

Mr. Williams said small-business lending volume at the nation's second- largest banking company has grown since the BankAmerica-NationsBank merger last fall. The new Bank of America boasts $9.7 billion of small-business loans and 1.7 million small-business customers.

Also since the BankAmerica-NationsBank deal, the successor company has committed itself to make $180 billion worth of small-business loans in 10 years.

Still, the troubles of Bank of America's Charlotte rival, First Union Corp., illustrate the challenges larger banking companies have in retaining customers-especially small businesses-after a merger. Last month, First Union said that, within nine months, it had lost 19% of the Philadelphia- area customers that came to it in its April 1998 deal for CoreStates Financial Corp.

Much of the problem from small-business owners' standpoint stems from postmerger banks' switching loan officers without notifying customers, said Maria Erickson, PSI's senior vice president of the corporate services research program.

"It's important for small-business customers to feel like they've been kept informed even if there are bumps in the road," Ms. Erickson said.

First Financial Bancorp of Hamilton, Ohio, has its own strategy for minimizing customer consternation after a merger.

In the 25 or more deals it has done since being formed in 1983, First Financial has tried to retain loan officers and managers with whom customers are familiar.

"The customers shouldn't even know the bank's been acquired," said Rick Blossom, senior vice president and chief lending officer at the $3.7 billion-asset company.

The strategy has worked so far, Mr. Blossom said. After each deal, First Financial saw business increase at the acquired bank.

As for the Texan Mr. Summers, he finally found a bank that satisfies him.

The officers at First Texas Bank in Round Rock have promised him that their bank isn't for sale. So Mr. Summers has kept his business accounts there for 14 years and spent most of that time dealing with just one vice president.

"We know each other and understand each other's character," Mr. Summers said. "I know what to expect, and he knows my business well enough to meet those needs."

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