Laura Lee's career has almost come full circle, and her route says a lot about banking today, especially the competitiveness in her field of expertise — wealth management.

Lee was named chief operating officer of the wealth management unit at Old National Bancorp in Evansville, Ind., last week. A small bank might seem like a funny landing spot for someone who spent 23 years climbing the ranks at a big regional player, Fifth Third Bancorp, but it is actually the second time Lee has jumped from a major bank to a community bank in Evansville.

And “small is relative” when it comes to describing Old National’s wealth management operation, she said. Its $9 billion of assets under management make it one of the largest fiduciary management firms in the Midwest. In addition to Indiana, it does business in Michigan, Kentucky and Wisconsin.

While Fifth Third is almost 10 times the size of the $14.9 billion-asset Old National, both banks are similar in the premium they place on wealth management. Indeed, wealth management accounted for more than 20% of noninterest income at each in the first quarter. That figure is higher than the 13% average among banks with more than $10 billion in assets, according to Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. statistics.

At Old National, Lee said she will focus much of her attention on client care, risk management and — especially — talent development. “People can make all the difference in this business,” she said. "I want to make sure we have the right processes and tools in place to take the best care of our clients.”

She will also join Old National’s wealth management executive leadership committee, which charts strategy for the organization at its highest level.

“People can make all the difference in this business,” says Laura Lee, whose priorities will include talent development and customer relations as the new COO of wealth management at Old National.

The practice of hiring an executive away from a rival company is much more prevalent in the investment banking and legal spheres, but it is hardly a rarity in commercial banking.

In October, for example, the British banking giant Standard Chartered poached Terry Berntsen, who was serving as president at Independent Bank Group in McKinney, Texas, to oversee its U.S. operation. At the community bank level, the $3.3 billion-asset Park Sterling Corp. in Charlotte, N.C., has earned a reputation for grabbing talented bankers from rival companies.

Lee, who was raised outside Chicago and earned an MBA from the University of Chicago, got her start in banking at Northern Trust. After six years, she moved to Evansville, joining the 120-year-old Citizens National Bank of Evansville in 1994.

“I was new to Evansville, but I fell in love with it when I got here,” Lee said.

Fifth Third, based in Cincinnati, acquired Citizens in 1998.

Lee, who most recently had served as a vice president and senior trust officer at Fifth Third, managed its southern Indiana wealth administrative team. She said she wasn’t looking for a new role until Old National “presented me with a really attractive opportunity.”

The COO role is new to Old National's wealth management unit, a company spokeswoman said, and Lee is the first to fill it.

“I loved Fifth Third, but the chance to join a more community-oriented organization suited my goals,” Lee said Monday in an interview. “The opportunity flowed right into my lane.”

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