Having just completed an $867 million acquisition, Princeton, N.J.- based Summit Bancorp is moving swiftly to dominate southern New Jersey and has appointed a new regional president to lead the charge.

Laura Gilardini, 44, took on the assignment Friday, succeeding Gary F. Simmerman, 63, who recently retired. She has spent the last two years as Summit's head of small-business banking.

Ms. Gilardini is the first woman to be named regional president at $29 billion-asset Summit. With the new assignment, she also becomes one of the two highest-ranking women there. The other, Virginia A. Ibarra, is an executive vice president.

But her ambitions don't stop with this latest promotion. "I want to be president of the bank, yes.

"Realistically, I want to be head of retail banking next," she said with a chuckle. "But that will take a few years."

Summit's six regional presidents manage the bank's disparate markets- from the state's affluent northern suburbs to rural eastern Pennsylvania. All report to Sabry J. Mackoul, senior executive vice president for retail banking.

While Summit is the largest native-New Jersey bank left after waves of mergers, it only recently acquired an expansive stretch of territory in the southernmost counties of the state with the purchase of $5.5 billion-asset Collective Bancorp, Egg Harbor City.

The new southern New Jersey region, with 80 branches, is now Summit's largest market in terms of branches and geography, Ms. Gilardini said.

"The merger opened a whole area of southern New Jersey with enormous market potential," she said. "We've got a foothold there, and now we're going to make a name for ourselves."

Ms. Gilardini was chosen because of her experience in small-business lending, the bank said. She is credited for expanding Summit's business lending programs to include nontraditional financing, commercial mortgage services for small businesses, a minority lending group, and a business loan center specializing in fast loan approvals.

A native of Italy, Ms. Gilardini came to the United States with her family when she was a teenager. She started her 25-year banking career right after high school as a file clerk in the installment loan department at Peoples Trust in Hackensack, N.J., a Summit predecessor bank.

Ms. Gilardini worked her way up the ranks of Peoples-and its successor, United Jersey Bank-while attending college at night. Along the way, she switched from installment loans to an entry-level trainee position in retail banking. After working her way into management in the retail group, she transferred to a trainee position in the audit department.

"It's been a very long road," she said.

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