For five years, William R. Robertson was in a "horse race" for the top job at National City Corp. When he lost out to rival David Daberko four years ago, Mr. Robertson said he would step down before he reached age 65.

But when he affirmed the decision this week, it apparently came as a surprise to Mr. Daberko, now National City's chairman and chief executive.

The 55-year-old Mr. Robertson, president of National City since 1995, said he would take early retirement at the end of July.

The two men were on an even keel for five years, but in 1993, Edward B. Brandon anointed Mr. Daberko his heir apparent, promoting him to president and chief operating officer. Mr. Daberko, now 51, assumed his current role at the $51 billion-asset company in 1995.

Mr. Robertson, who has worked 33 years for National City, said that when Mr. Daberko was promoted, he agreed to work through a transition period and would take early retirement.

"When Dave was selected, I said, 'I wish it was a different decision,' but I promised Eddie and Dave I would support it 1,000%," Mr. Robertson said.

"I'm a young man with a lot of energy," Mr. Robertson said, who indicated he would like to use his banking skills to enter a related field outside banking. He said he didn't believe the news came as a great surprise to National City's management.

However, Mr. Daberko said he was "quite surprised. I did not anticipate he would work until he was 65, but he's only 55."

Mr. Daberko said he wished Mr. Robertson well and said the departing president's duties probably would be divided among several executives. That decision would be made by the end of March, he said.

Vincent A. DiGirolamo, vice chairman, will be the No. 2 person in the company and will continue to oversee banking operations. Mr. Robertson has been in charge of all fee businesses, such as trust, mortgage, and processing.

Mr. Daberko said he and Mr. Robertson first spoke two weeks ago about the president's future at the company. Both men described the departure as amicable.

"Since we were in a horse race for so long, I think he wanted to be a CEO," Mr. Daberko said. "He wants to run something."

"It sounds like a personal decision," said Joseph Duwan, an analyst with Keefe, Bruyette & Woods Inc. "I would not read anything negative in that."

Indeed, Mr. Daberko said the announcement is different from other recent bank departures where executives seemingly in line for chief executive positions have left their respective banks. "He was not in line to be CEO," Mr. Daberko said. "We have very well-laid-out succession plans. There are a number of individuals younger than me that could succeed me in due time."

Those plans have not been made public, but Mr. Robertson's departure should create opportunities for lower-level executives hoping to prove themselves. "Bill has 10 areas that report to him," Mr. Daberko said. "This will allow other people to take on more responsibility."

Analysts said there should be little disruption by the change in personnel. "National City has the bench strength to elevate people," Mr. Duwan said.

Mr. Robertson doesn't appear to receive any special compensation other than the company's standard pension and health care benefits. He does hold about 100,000 shares of National City stock, which was trading Wednesday afternoon at $46, up 50 cents. He'll also continue to serve on the board of directors.

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