Thursday, October 16, 2003

First Financial president ousted



By Jeff McKinney
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[photo]
Pontius


In a surprise move, Stanley N. Pontius, longtime president and chief executive of First Financial Bancorp, one of the Tristate's largest banks, was asked to leave Wednesday by the company's board.

The Hamilton-based parent of First Financial Bank, formerly First National Bank of Southwestern Ohio, said it had finalized a separation agreement with Pontius, the top executive of the $3.9 billion-asset bank and thrift holding company since 1991.

The agreement calls for Pontius' immediate departure as a director, president and CEO of the parent, and relinquishing of all affiliate board responsibilities.

The banking company's board appointed its chairman, Bruce E. Leep, as its interim president and chief executive of the parent company. He also will serve as interim chairman of First Financial Bank, the company's lead bank.

Reached at home, Leep said there were differences of opinion between the board and Pontius about the company, and both sides could not resolve those differences.

"They had different concentric views of the company, that's about all I can say," he said. Talks had been going on for about a year, he said.

The announcement, made after financial markets closed Wednesday, caught banking observers by surprise.

First Financial had been struggling in recent quarters with earnings, but Pontius had given no indication of leaving.

First Financial operates 102 branches in Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana and Michigan. That includes 29 branches with deposits of $1.07 billion in a 12-county area surrounding Cincinnati, making it the region's fifth-largest banking entity, as of June 2002, the latest data, according to SNL Financial.

E-mail jmckinney@enquirer.com.



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