Wednesday, June 30, 2004

First Financial extends CEO hunt

By Jeff McKinney
Enquirer staff writer

First Financial Bancorp said Tuesday it was extending the search for a president and chief executive, and banking analysts say its next option could be to sell the company.

The Hamilton-based banking company announced it was taking longer than expected to fill the vacant top position, but has not publicly discussed selling.

But Fred Cummings of Key Capital Markets in Cleveland said First Financial should consider the move.

"This is a company that is clearly struggling, and I'm a little surprised that it has not been sold," he said.

The news by the parent of First Financial, Greater Cincinnati's fifth-largest bank, comes two months after it told investors at its April annual meeting that it hoped to find a new leader by the end of the second quarter.

The bank launched its search after Stanley Pontius stepped down as First Financial's president and CEO in October. He ran the bank for 12 years.

Among the candidates mentioned by First Financial chairman and interim president Bruce Leep was Rick Blossom, a former First Financial executive who left the bank in 1999.

But Blossom said Tuesday he had not been in touch with the bank recently and believes he's out of the running.

"It's obvious that the new president is not me," he said.

Blossom, 56, is CEO of Second Bancorp in Warren, Ohio, but his last day is today, when Sky Financial Group Inc. of Bowling Green, Ohio, is expected to complete its acquisition of Second Bancorp.

Leep said in April that First Financial had narrowed its search for a CEO to three candidates, including Blossom.

Leep did not return messages left Tuesday seeking comment on the search.

Cummings said First Financial would be a good buy for Cleveland-based National City Corp., which is buying Cincinnati-based Provident Financial Group Inc., or Columbus-based Huntington Bancshares Inc. National City is expected to close this week on its $2.1 billion buyout of Provident.

Analyst Ross Demmerle of Hilliard Lyons said First Financial's management needs to determine whether the bank can remain independent and develop a strategy to boost its stock price over a reasonable time or consider seeking a buyer who can offer shareholders a better return over the same time frame.

First Financial is expected to release its second-quarter financial results July 20.

It has assets of $3.9 billion with 103 branches in Ohio, Kentucky, Michigan and Indiana.

Its stock closed Tuesday at $18.07, up 18 cents.


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