Tuesday, October 21, 2003

First Financial's profits down 25%

Bank also has turnover on board

By Jeff McKinney
The Cincinnati Enquirer

A week after losing its longtime top executive, Hamilton-based First Financial Bancorp said third-quarter profits fell 25 percent.

The parent of First Financial Bank - operator of the Tristate's fifth-largest bank - said it earned $7.8 million, or 18 cents a share, down from $10.8 million, or 24 cents a share, a year ago.

The lower profit, reduced by 20 percent because of a severance package paid to former president and chief executive Stanley Pontius, marked the third consecutive quarter that profit has declined.

Pontius, First Financial's president and chief executive since 1991, agreed Wednesday with the board of the $3.9 billion asset banking company to leave.

In another development, Martin J. Bidwell, a board member since 1999, has resigned, First Financial said Monday. Bidwell is the third First Financial director to leave in two months. Richard L. Alderson left the board in August, and Pontius also gave up a board seat with his exit. First Financial has nine board members, down from 12 in early August.

First Financial executives declined to comment about why Bidwell left or whether it was tied to Pontius' exit.

Bidwell is president of Magnode Corp., a Trenton-based aluminum extrusion manufacturer. A call to Bidwell for comment was not returned.

First Financial's earnings remain under pressure and the company's stock price has fallen in recent years.

The company, which operates 36 branches locally with deposits of just more than $1 billion, said Pontius' severance package reduced share earnings by a nickel.

The company also said third-quarter results were hurt as net interest income - most banks' main source of profits - fell by $12.5 million or 10.15 percent from a year ago. Its net interest margin - the difference of what it charges on loans and pays on deposits - fell to 3.98 percent in the third quarter, down from 4.70 percent a year ago. The company's stock has risen 5.6 percent since Wednesday, closing at $16.25 Monday. .

E-mail jmckinney@enquirer.com

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