Dave Casper, who oversees commercial banking for Harris of Chicago, says rivals have been trying to poach his bankers who work directly with clients.

He has 300, a fifth of whom have joined in the past three years as the Bank of Montreal subsidiary went on a recruiting spree of its own.

"They have good, strong relationship skills. Many of them are homegrown," Casper said. "If one of our bankers is getting courted, they kind of come in and laugh about it: 'So and so is out in the market.' "

Midsize banks across the country have been in the market for experienced relationship bankers this year as they slowly rebuild their ranks after two years of job cuts. Corporate and consumer client specialists are emerging as perhaps the most prized talent in regional banking, as the financial crisis has left many customers dissatisfied with their banks.

"A seasoned relationship manager is what the market is vying for. There is a bit of a short supply in the high-quality bank ranks," said Thomas Watkins, founding partner of Chartwell Partners, an executive recruiting firm in Dallas. "It is a big problem going forward because nobody is building them. Not that many banks are training baby bankers today."

Watkins, who helps national and regional banks with recruiting, said that a year ago banks were still shedding jobs while adding what he described as "defensive players" — people like credit officers and commercial loan experts who could help institutions quarantine and write off bad credits.

Having gotten past the worst of their loan problems, lenders this year have been eager to hire people who can increase revenue in a post-recession economy that does not look conducive to profit growth.

Right now, businesses and consumers are saving more and spending — and thus borrowing — less. Nobody knows when that trend will end, but it will. Regional banks, which have fewer revenue sources than the large, money-center lenders, are jockeying for people who can capture new business when the economy thaws.

The blueprint for post-recession growth at most regional banks is similar: Steal the other guys' clients and sell them as many different products and services as possible.

Relationship builders — or bankers adept at winning over new clients and holding onto longtime ones — are central to that strategy.

"It really is about staying close to the client. You typically staff up and staff down according to the cycles," said Maria C. Coyne, who was named head of national business banking at KeyCorp of Cleveland in May. "We have open positions. We plan to add more feet to the street, too."

Hiring announcements at U.S. financial services companies — including banks, investments firms, securities dealers and other related businesses — were up 56% year over year in 2010 through June, according to data from Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc. Regulatory filings show that payrolls rose modestly in the first three months of the year at a number of large commercial lenders. Among them: U.S. Bancorp, PNC Financial Services Group Inc., Capital One Financial Corp., SunTrust Banks Inc., Huntington Banchsares Inc. and Harris.

It's impossible to gauge how many of those hires were for "client-facing" jobs, but scrolling through the online "careers" pages at these banks indicates that they're hungry for relationship talent. Huntington, for instance, has posted ads for at least 25 relationship-related bankers in the past two weeks. SunTrust has posted ads for 18 business relationship managers or development officers in the past 28 days. Chris McDonnell, a banking consultant with Greenwich Associates in Stamford, Conn., said the recession has given banks an unprecedented chance to drum up business. A lot of consumers and corporations have become dissatisfied with their banks and the industry in general, as bank bailouts and foreclosures dominated headlines for the better part of two years.

A recent poll his firm conducted of midsize corporations across the country indicated that businesses are unusually willing to dump their bank if they hear a good pitch from another institution, he said.

"There is window of opportunity right now where companies are … citing declining levels of satisfaction with their banking relationships," McDonnell said. "It's all driven by the banker. The individual builds trust rather than the institution. You've got so many people that are frustrated. They're switching" banks.

Casper, an executive vice president at Harris, said that in the more than 30 years he's been in banking he's never seen a better time to steal business. His company has been building its client team to do just that, expanding it by 20% since 2007.

Harris courted some of Chicago's best-known relationship bankers in 2008 and 2009 as well-known banks in the area either closed or scaled back.

Casper said Harris retains its relationship bankers by tying compensation to success building long-term clients. It trained most of them, so they're steeped in corporate culture. Harris' top executives help with recruitment and retention.

Casper said he sees "a huge opportunity" to pick up clients. "There are a host of very good companies that in some cases have weathered the storm quite well, but probably with no real help from their existing bank," he said.

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