Harvey Slovin is a bank-merger refugee.
The independent businessman, president of Checks Cashed Today Inc., did business with Intercontinental Bank in Miami since 1988. For cash-flow reasons, Mr. Slovin asked that holds not be placed on checks he deposited, and the bank obliged.
But after NationsBank Corp. acquired $1.1 billion-asset Intercontinental, it decided not to be so flexible. In February it gave Mr. Slovin a two-week warning that it would not immediately credit out-of-state checks.
"That was their way of telling me they didn't want to do business with me," Mr. Slovin said. "NationsBank literally threw me out into the street."
On March 1 Mr. Slovin found a new home at Coral Gables-based Bank United, which does not hold his checks.
Community banks such as Bank United love the Harvey Slovins of the world.
Conventional wisdom holds that small businesses are the most directly and visibly affected of any customer group in a bank merger, especially when a big bank swallows a smaller one. The rapid, sometimes sweeping change in policies and personnel brought on by consolidation can disrupt the attention many small businesses had come to expect from their bankers.
Not surprisingly, community banks all over the country report an influx of new small-business accounts whenever a similar-sized competitor gets bought.
"When larger banks make acquisitions, the customers that have the tendency to leave are small and middle-market businesses," said Eric D. Hovde, executive vice president of the consultancy Hovde Financial Inc., Washington. "It's a real opportunity for small and medium-sized banks that can put a personal touch on delivering products for small businesses."
Jules Ast, another Intercontinental Bank customer, who is executive director of Pines Nursing Home, didn't cotton to NationsBank for the simple reason that he didn't know his new local bank manager.
"I like to walk into a branch and talk to the officer personally," said Mr. Ast. "If I have a problem, I want to call someone on the management committee."
He, like Mr. Slovin, followed his banker, Jim Dougherty, from NationsBank to Bank United. Mr. Dougherty had been an Intercontinental vice president who had worked closely with both businessmen in the past.
Both Mr. Slovin and Mr. Ast spoke highly of Mr. Dougherty and his abilities as a banker. They stressed that despite demands on people's time and the gee-whiz technological delivery systems available, personal relationships still matter to some entrepreneurs.
"Small-business banking is a people business," said Stephen Johnson, owner of T. Stephen Johnson & Associates, a consulting firm in Atlanta. "Any time you change the people, you risk losing the people."
"It would appear that NationsBank didn't come out as well as one would have hoped" with the Intercontinental acquisition, said Richard X. Bove, an analyst with Raymond James & Associates in St. Petersburg, Fla. "A lot of customers at Intercontinental had strong relationships to people that ran the bank. They wanted to be kissed on a regular basis, which Intercontinental was really good at.
"Once those customers were handed off to NationsBank, they were dealing with a branch manager at best."
If you can't put a price on service, you can put a price on a line of credit. For this reason, many say that whatever small-business accounts community banks pick up during the merger frenzy could be hard to hold onto once the superregionals put their hard-bought efficiencies to work on price competition.
Indeed, Mr. Bove predicted that despite occasional setbacks, big banks ultimately will overwhelm the small banks with their greater efficiency and resources.
"My gut feeling is that the vast majority of small businesses that do business with banks want speed, efficiency, and good price, and they ain't going to get that from a small bank," he said.
G. Timothy Laney, senior vice president, business marketing at Charlotte, N.C.-based NationsBank, said it is inevitable that some customers will move after a merger.
But he added, echoing other big-bank executives, that most small- business customers are more interested in convenient access to a full range of financial products than they are in spending a lot of time at the friendly local bank.
So in the big picture NationsBank presumably has an edge because it has the resources and technology to be a one-stop financial services shop.
"It's fair to say that there are going to be niche banks - community banks - in the market over time, just as we find other providers entering the market, like the Money Store, that can be competitive and take market share," he said. "But NationsBank can provide a full array of financial services and do it in a way that generates acceptable revenue to our shareholders."
Still, Alfred Camner expects to steal more business from the heavyweights.
"NationsBank's policies are still made from a long way off," said Camner, chief executive of $640 million-asset Bank United. "One day someone in Charlotte can make a decision that they don't want to have a certain kind of loan any more, irrespective of how long a customer has been with the bank."
As evidence of Bank United's growth at the expense of the big banks, he pointed to a Deerfield, Fla., branch. Deposits have grown 45%, to $65.3 million, largely due to consolidation cast-offs from NationsBank and First Union.
More than halfway across the country, in Colorado, some community bankers also see consolidation as a windfall. Since the early 1990s, the state's largest banks have become outposts of superregionals based elsewhere.
"It's been a real boon," said Richard Tucker, chairman of Denver-based Tri-State Bank. "For those that have not sold out and have dedicated themselves to the future, this is a great opportunity."
It has become difficult to track small-business-loan market shares because of the merger activity and the advent of interstate branching.
In Colorado the data have some validity because the large banks have made relatively few acquisition in the last two years, and there is not yet interstate branching. All five of the state's $1 billion-plus banks were bought by out-of-state holding companies between 1990 and 1994.
Data from Sheshunoff Information Services show that, in aggregate, the five top banks had fewer small-business loans on their books in 1995 than in 1994 - a period in which community bankers there say they fished large numbers of small business acounts from the big-bank barrels.
Colorado independent banks' small-business loans, including those for real estate, increased 38% in the yearended June 30. For the same period, small-business lending at the state's biggest banks dropped 7%.
Of total small-business loans made by Colorado commercial banks, the five largest banks' share fell to 39% from 49% in 1994. All told, these five banks control almost 50% of the state's deposits.
Mr. Tucker said disaffected entrepreneurs in the Rocky Mountain region have been streaming into Tri-State Bank from Bank One Colorado over the past six months.
The reason: Banc One Corp., Columbus, Ohio, has started consolidating functions that had previously been decentralized. In Colorado, this has meant confusion in service and disaffection among employees, Mr. Tucker said.
The big banks "are going after mass, and if you don't fit into their model they don't even care," he said. "We're much more flexible."
Mr. Tucker added that some entrepreneurs rebel at a bank's suggestions to use automated teller machines and apply for loans by mail.
"Customers at this point want personal service," he said.
John Russell, chief communications officer for $90.5 billion-asset Banc One Corp. - it has the third-largest portfolio of small-business loans in the country, according to a Small Business Administration study - wasn't aware of customer dissatisfaction in Colorado.
Small-business loans at Banc One's Colorado subsidiaries grew 1.2% in the 12 months ended June 30, according to Sheshunoff. Banc One was one of only two Colorado regionals to post an increase.