SunTrust Banks may have missed its chance to combine with Southeast rival Wachovia Corp., but its chief executive, L. Phillip Humann, insisted Monday that his company has plenty to gain if Wachovia is absorbed by First Union Corp.

His comments, in a speech to analysts in New York, came amid rumors that SunTrust is mulling a deal to buy the Atlanta capital markets business of investment bank Robinson-Humphrey from Citigroup Inc.

Mr. Humann declined to comment on whether SunTrust might buy Robinson-Humphrey, but analysts said the deal has been in the wind for weeks. A spokeswoman for Citigroup's Salomon Smith Barney division, which owns Robinson-Humphrey, would not comment.

In his presentation at UBS Warburg's 2001 Global Financial Services conference, Mr. Humann said a First Union-Wachovia merger would create opportunities for Atlanta-based SunTrust and others.

"If you look back in the past, our company has benefited significantly from similar transactions elsewhere in our footprint," Mr. Humann said. "We and other competitors made hay for several years in Florida as a result of the NationsBank-Barnett merger, and we made hay for several years in Virginia as a result of the First Union-Signet merger."

He said divestitures, branch conversions, and other changes would bring an "inevitable disruption" that could send customers fleeing to competitors, SunTrust among them.

First Union and Wachovia have said they expect divestiture requirements to be modest, amounting to about $1.5 billion to $2 billion of deposits. Though the companies have not said how many branches would be closed if the deal closes, people familiar with the situation put the number at 50 to 60.

"There are only four cities where the divestitures are significant," said a person who worked on the deal - Asheville, N.C.; Roanoke, Va.; Winston-Salem, N.C., where Wachovia is based; and Savannah, Ga.

SunTrust does not operate in the Carolinas, though it competes with Wachovia and First Union elsewhere in the Southeast.

Robinson-Humphrey, which has been bounced around in mergers for two decades, became a part of Citigroup in 1998. Citigroup's Salomon Smith Barney subsidiary has mostly swallowed the Atlanta boutique's retail brokerage and municipal bond businesses, and it handles all of the latter's back-end functions.

But Robinson-Humphrey's capital markets unit, for which SunTrust reportedly is bidding, has remained largely independent, operating as a regional boutique offering institutional sales and trading, research, and other investment banking services. This arrangement, which was designed to help Robinson-Humphrey retain its longtime relationships in the South, also could make it easier for Citigroup to carve it off in a deal.

After the deal rumors were reported in The Wall Street Journal Monday, analysts said they were surprised to hear that SunTrust might be investment-bank shopping, because it has not had an easy time in the capital markets business. SunTrust's motive for buying Robinson-Humphrey, they said, could be to help it beef up its relatively small investment bank, SunTrust Equitable Securities. In 1998, the banking company bought Equitable Securities Inc. of Nashville but has struggled with it since.

"The odd thing to me is that SunTrust has not had particular success with the Equitable operation. I believe Equitable now is a lot smaller than when they acquired it," said John Moore, an analyst at Wachovia Securities in Charlotte, N.C.

"They have not had great success in the capital markets activities," said Ryan, Beck & Co. analyst Nancy Bush. "My belief has been that they're not interested in that business."

With Equitable Securities, she said, "they could never really get a focus. I would be skeptical that they're going to go back and be able to correct that."

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