For John Spiegel, chief financial officer at SunTrust Banks Inc., the real work began after he left the negotiating table and set about combining his company with Crestar Financial Corp.

Chosen by chairman James B. Williams to head the transition, Mr. Spiegel said he is in charge of "making sure we get all the results that were advertised."

Mr. Spiegel put together 27 teams to take a hard look at the two banking companies and advise him on which systems and services would work best. The teams are made up of both Crestar and SunTrust representatives, ranging from top executives to line managers.

Analysts said the team approach sets SunTrust apart from other banking companies. By getting all employees involved, they said, the Atlanta banking company can build a consensus, as opposed to having executives dictate changes. For employees, that can make decisions easier to live with, the analysts said.

"To a degree, all banks are methodical, but SunTrust appears to be taking it perhaps to a higher degree, involving employees at all levels," said Eric Rothmann, banking analyst at Stephens Inc. in Little Rock, Ark.

"They want to make sure that nothing is taken for granted so there is no excuse why the new entity can't achieve growth goals," Mr. Rothmann said.

The risk is that teams may not reach a consensus, but SunTrust is managing around that, Mr. Spiegel said.

For instance, Mr. Spiegel said he was not bothered that the merger team came to no clear conclusion on how to handle mortgage banking. Consultants were brought in to decide how to meld the companies' dissimilar businesses.

SunTrust is putting a premium on communication. "We've trained people to work together and to make decisions," Mr. Spiegel said.

The training consisted of bringing together all group leaders for a half-day seminar on decision-making and employee relations, Mr. Spiegel said.

The approach "doesn't totally remove some internal problems over turf, but it has opened the process up," Mr. Spiegel said.

"The greatest challenge is to encourage people to think very openly," Mr. Spiegel said. "Saying to people, 'You've got to make changes or your group has to go away' is tough."

Because of the way the deal was structured, SunTrust must take a precise approach to wring out all the merger's benefits. Unlike in-market mergers that rely heavily on branch closings to achieve cost savings, SunTrust bought into a separate geographic market with the Crestar deal.

SunTrust envisions $130 million of cost savings from the merger, with about 75% achieved this year and the rest next year, Mr. Spiegel said.

It also expects to achieve $28 million of revenue enhancements by adopting some of each banking company's products and services.

For instance, SunTrust will begin offering student loans through a program that Crestar has long operated.

Though consensus-building is a priority, hard decisions are being made, Mr. Spiegel said.

A case in point is SunTrust's credit card operation. Hundreds of employees worked in separate units at SunTrust and Crestar. The merger team voted to close the Crestar unit in Richmond, Va., and to put all credit card operations in SunTrust's newer, larger Orlando facility.

SunTrust hopes to soften the transition by letting key employees know they are needed-even if their units are shuttered. "They know there are still good places for them in the company," Mr. Spiegel said.

Not all decisions in the merger process are cut and dried. Because of year-2000 issues, the team in charge of melding computer systems has decided to hold off until next year. The decision will cost Crestar money, but the alternative was to risk potentially huge foul-ups, Mr. Spiegel said.

Back-office systems, payroll, and general ledger functions will be brought together this year.

Mr. Spiegel is among the top managers being given financial incentives to make the merger work. Top executives can each earn $1 million or more distributed between restricted stock awards and salary enhancements, said Lori Appelbaum, banking analyst at Goldman, Sachs & Co.

Mr. Spiegel is a soft-spoken man who brings a dry sense of humor to his job. When he appears before analysts, he starts by popping the top of a Coca-Cola can and saying, "If each of you did this, it would increase our unrealized gains appreciably"-a reference to the company's considerable holdings of Coca-Cola stock.

He also keeps a totem pole in his office as a conversation piece and has strategically placed it to partially obstruct visitors' view of rival BankAmerica's regional headquarters.

In Virginia, SunTrust is treading cautiously to avoid customer disruptions. "It is important to communicate that this is not a merger of people who were competitors in the market," Mr. Spiegel said.

To that end, based on a team recommendation, Crestar branches will keep their name for at least the next year and a half, Mr. Spiegel said. "It is important to keep the organization alive and focused on our customers."

To get employees with the program, some bonuses are being tied to customer retention. Committee recommendations even extend to the way SunTrust will consider growing.

After relying for more than a decade on internal growth, SunTrust has now set up a group "to develop a master plan in terms of plotting mergers and acquisitions," Mr. Spiegel said.

That group, reporting to Mr. Spiegel, is an outgrowth of a team that acquisitive Crestar had. With the unit, SunTrust is signaling its willingness to stay in the merger game-if the conditions are right.

"We're not considering anything in particular right now," Mr. Spiegel said. "But that doesn't mean we have our eyes closed."

SunTrust will not enter any deal that would be dilutive to earnings, Mr. Spiegel said.

He declined to cite any particular area SunTrust may target, but the company could look for a deal that closes the geographic gulf-North Carolina and South Carolina-between SunTrust's and Crestar's core market areas.

Analysts list BB&T Corp. and CCB Financial Corp. among potential SunTrust targets. In the Middle Atlantic markets, Crestar could look to First Virginia Banks or First Tennessee Corp.

The next deal, however, will apparently have to wait.

"You get from them a real sense they want to make the Crestar merger work," said Frank Barkocy, banking analyst at Josephthal & Co.

Subscribe Now

Access to authoritative analysis and perspective and our data-driven report series.

14-Day Free Trial

No credit card required. Complete access to articles, breaking news and industry data.