As NationsBank Corp. gets ready to sell some Florida branches in anticipation of its first-quarter merger with Barnett Banks Inc., SunTrust Banks Inc. is waging an aggressive ad campaign warning Barnett and NationsBank customers of the pitfalls that may lie ahead.
Though turmoil is one thing banking companies try hard not to associate with mergers, it is exactly what SunTrust wants Floridians to fear.
"When takeovers happen, big problems usually follow," the SunTrust ads warn. "Branches may close. Employees may leave. Products may change. And fees may go up."
The series of print and radio advertisements, which began last month and are to run until mid-December, encourage NationsBank and Barnett customers to call for information about moving their accounts to SunTrust.
SunTrust officials said more than 2,400 people called the "1-800-2- SWITCH" number given in the ads during the first three weeks of the six- week campaign. Numbers for the fourth week are not yet tabulated.
L. Phillip Humann, president of Atlanta-based SunTrust, said the company expects to win thousands of customers as a result of the merger.
The current advertising is but the first salvo in what will be a lengthy effort aimed at attracting customers from the merging banks, he said.
SunTrust is one of scores of banking companies in Florida that are maneuvering to attract customers and employees from NationsBank and Barnett. The companies announced Aug. 29 that they would merge, creating the country's third-largest banking company with about $290 billion of assets. Several community banks have ad campaigns touting themselves as the answer to impersonal banking giants.
But the campaign by SunTrust, a regional powerhouse with $55.45 billion of assets, stands out from the others. It is the first time that the traditionally conservative SunTrust has launched an advertising assault in anticipation of a rival's acquisition.
SunTrust officials said the opportunity in Florida, where it holds the fourth-largest market share, with 10.36% of deposits, is too significant to pass up.
"This is a very unusual situation in our market: The No. 1 market share leader combined with the very expensive price that was paid results in the need to eliminate huge amounts of costs, and that spells tremendous opportunity," said T.J. "Ted" Hoepner, chairman and chief executive officer of SunTrust Banks of Florida Inc.
"That calls for new and different tactics to try to maximize that situation."
Indeed, the SunTrust ads are anything but subtle. In one, a man standing atop a railroad trestle faces a fast-approaching train. "Maybe now is a good time to move," the ad reads.
"They clearly see an opportunity, with all the potential disruption in the marketplace," said NBW Consulting principal Les S. Dinkin.
"Barnett has been known for its personal service, and its customers are almost expecting something to happen" - a deterioration in service or an increase in fees. "It's a highly sensitized situation."
The early attack on the NationsBank-Barnett merger is partly related to SunTrust's belief that antitrust concerns will prevent it from buying any of the deposits NationsBank plans to divest through branch sales.
NationsBank has said it will sell about $1.9 billion of deposits. Moreover, it has made clear that it is unlikely to sell deposits to its large competitors in Florida.
"Based on our understanding, we can't acquire deposits because of our large presence already," Mr. Hoepner said.
Along with the new customers SunTrust is working to attract, the Atlanta company is also trying to hire Barnett and NationsBank employees.
It has already picked up several Barnett executives and expects to add "hundreds," said Mr. Humann. The additions are coming from a variety of business lines, he said.