The pause spoke volumes.

When asked if he had a lot of sleepless nights before the early morning announcement that his bank would be sold, John Keach Jr. took a deep breath, laughed nervously and answered politely: "It's been a process. Yes, sir."

The momentary gap in conversation betrayed feelings that cut deep, and could have swallowed up the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of small bankers around the country who still have to make the tough call whether to sell.

The day Keach had hoped to avoid came Wednesday when his lifelong employer — Indiana Community Bancorp, the holding company of Indiana Bank and Trust Co. — said it would be sold to Old National Bancorp of Evansville for $79.2 million.

Keach, 59, has a classic story. He started working at the bank 37 years ago, as a teller. His grandfather, Glenn, joined the bank in 1941 and rose to chief executive officer like his son, John Sr. and grandson, John Jr.

But the ending of the story is a familiar one these days. The bank's board and its officers decided they couldn't make it and had to sell.

"That's obviously one of the most difficult decisions I have ever made professionally," he said.

Keach clearly fought back some emotion during a tedious question-and-answer session about the particulars of the bank's decision. But he spoke forcefully and frankly about the reasons why.

"It's about scale. It's about size. It's about the ability to absorb the increase in operating costs in an environment that is difficult to grow your earnings," he said, again seeming to channel the every-banker. "Revenue growth was becoming a challenge. As we forecast it out over the next couple of years, we feel that it is going to continue to be a challenge while costs are going to continue to increase."

He ticked off a long list, including regulatory demands, credit challenges and the likelihood of a prolonged period of low interest rates.

"In this environment, it's very difficult to forecast meaningful revenue growth," he said.

Indiana Community took some heavy medicine in the third quarter, charging off $13.3 million of loans. On Wednesday it reported a fourth-quarter profit of $1.8 million — but a loss of $1.7 million for the year.

He had to inform employees in personal and phone meetings of the decision to sell. Their reaction was one of understanding, Keach said. "It's not anger, no. Sadness, yes. A number of our good folks have been here for many years — 20, 30, 40 years."

Some of the 230 employees will lose their jobs — Old National has "to get some cost saves," Keach said. But the majority will stay, and shareholders are getting a good price, Keach said. Old National Bancorp Chief Executive Bob Jones and he had become friends in recent years, and Keach said that Indiana Community found a community-minded buyer with a similar culture that he could feel confident in.

Old National will pay off Indiana Community's Troubled Asset Relief Program aid as part of the deal, the two companies announced Wednesday.

"We wanted to control our own destiny," Keach said, in summing up why the bank decided to sell now instead of waiting it out and risk getting worse terms.

"We are honored to partner with such a highly regarded institution with a focus on basic banking and a well-earned reputation for community involvement," Jones said in a release.

Keach acknowledged that his story channeled the experiences of many other bankers. "It is certainly affecting a lot of us ... that's for sure."

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