In the age of acquisitions, community banks are finding it easy to snatch executives-and their expertise-away from competitors.

Industry consolidation has made job security uncertain, and bankers are increasingly interested in pursuing similar work elsewhere, said Michael Rimmele, a vice president at Bankers Group, a Chicago executive search firm.

"There are a number of individuals sleeping with one eye open," he said.

Florida-based BankAtlantic Bancorp recently hired away key personnel from Republic Banking Corp.'s international banking division to launch an international operation of its own. BankAtlantic announced the formation of its new division last week.

Republic executives were ripe for the picking after Barnett Banks Inc. tentatively agreed to buy the company.

"When the acquisition was announced, many thought their jobs were in jeopardy," said Mario Luis del Valle, who left Republic to head BankAtlantic's Dade County operations.

Republic, which is owned primarily by the Isaias family of Ecuador and has sizable market share in South Florida's Hispanic neighborhoods, was viewed as off limits as an acquisition target. However, when the Isaias expressed initial interest in selling to Barnett, some Republic employees started looking for work.

The deal fell apart in late May. Since then $2.5-billion-asset BankAtlantic has hired more than 30 employees from Republic. Five of them, including Mr. del Valle, will be most of the new international division, which will offer commercial and private banking services to clients with ties to Latin America.

Ken Thomas, a Miami-based independent bank consultant and analyst, said BankAtlantic was smart to take advantage of the discontent at Republic. "When you hire someone away, you're hiring away their phone numbers and their contacts," he said.

Something similar has been happening near Chicago. Amerimark Financial Corp. was formed in the wake of Old Kent Financial Corp.'s acquisition of EdgeMark Financial Corp. in 1993. EdgeMark executives left to form AmeriMark, and they've been asking old friends to join them ever since, a spokeswoman said.

Most recently the $51.2 million-asset banking company hired a branch manager and vice president from a nearby Old Kent Bank to hold similar jobs at Amerimark's newest branch, in Glen Ellyn.

Mr. Rimmele and Mr. Thomas said one way to keep executives is to offer them equity. In the Republic case, Mr. Thomas said, many employees might have stayed if they could have benefited from a sale because they owned Republic stock.

"For every bank, there's always a price," Mr. Thomas said. Executives reason, "if we're going to be taken out, we might as well get stock options to protect ourselves," he said.

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