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A Mississippi Business Journal Q&A

Union Planters and Regions officially merge Aug. 12

On August 12, the long-anticipated closing of the merger between Memphis-based Union Planters Banks and Birmingham-based Regions Financial Corporation (NYSE: RF) will take place. The merger integration process has been ongoing since January 2004. In June, the company collapsed the Union Planters charter into Regions’ and began operating the combined company under a single charter, an $84-billion-asset company operating 1,400 banking offices across a 15-state geographic region in the South, Midwest and Texas.

The Mississippi Business Journal spoke with Curt Gabardi, one of two Regions leaders in Mississippi, about changes in the banking system as a result of the nearly completed deal.

Gabardi is regional president of Union Planters Bank of Greater Jackson, including Jackson, Meridian, Hattiesburg and the Gulf Coast and consisting of 53 branches with total assets of $1.3 billion. He is a 16-year veteran of the bank with 19 years of commercial banking experience. Jimmy Brown in Grenada oversees Region’s North Mississippi banks.

Mississippi Business Journal: Mississippi is included in the second round of bank branch conversions, slated for early August. Will any Mississippi branches be closed? Are there plans to expand?

Curt Gabardi: Our branch optimization plans are ongoing in the Greater Mississippi region, which will include new locations in high-growth markets. While we do not have plans to close any branches in the region, we do see opportunities to consolidate a couple of locations into a more ideal facility to better serve our customers.

MBJ: What changes can the bank’s customers expect?

CG: It’s really business better than usual. The most important aspect of our conversion to Regions is that the same talented associates will continue to provide exceptional customer service. There will be minor product changes, which have already been communicated to our customers. The name and signs will change on Aug. 12, with our name change brand advertising to begin in the next couple of weeks. As an $84 billion bank, our heritage rests in community banking. We have the capital, technology, products and branch distribution network of a large regional bank, but the heart and soul of a community bank. Our primary mission with this conversion is to make certain that our customers view it as transparent. Our success during the first conversion of 130 branches confirmed that the bank’s well- paced and deliberate approach to the conversion to Regions was right on target. We’re very proud of the extraordinary commitment of our associates to manage their conversion training while maintaining our priorities to customer service.

The Greater Mississippi bank is having a record year for loan and deposit growth. The customer response to the Regions transition has been very positive with new account openings far exceeding prior year levels. We are experiencing double-digit loan and deposit growth and net income growth far exceeds internal expectations. We’re returning over 24% for every dollar of capital invested in the region.

MBJ: Regions president Jackson W. Moore, who took over as CEO on July 1, recently reported the bank has continued to make headway implementing initiatives that better position the company for long-term profitable growth. Can you elaborate?

CG: Our immediate priority is to successfully convert the legacy Union Planters banks into the Regions operating systems, which should be complete in 2005. Sam Upchurch was recently named in charge of corporate strategy and initiatives. This process has just begun but will involve a myriad of opportunities to possess a common operating model for our company. The implementation timeline for this will be 2006.

MBJ: Moore has said the company, which exited wholesale mortgage banking earlier this year, does not plan to jettison more lines of business. How about plans to add lines of business, particularly as they relate to provisions in the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act of 1999?

CG: Our focus will be to maximize our growth opportunities in existing high growth markets by focusing on our branch distribution footprint and to leverage our Morgan Keegan partners into our commercial customer base and visa versa.

Focusing on expanding existing customer relationships while attracting new customer relationships will be our main charge. We want to exploit our community-banking heritage by bringing in our line of business partners such as leasing, automobile floor plan lending and capital markets closer to our customer base. We want to stick to the fundamentals of banking and not stray from what our customers need, want and expect from our bank

MBJ: As part of its management restructuring, has the company made changes in the bank’s Mississippi division?

CG: There have been no changes as a result of the merger, per se, but we have continued to strengthen our community-banking model by leveraging key commercial and private banking talent in high growth markets. By supporting our branch managers and community bank presidents with commercial and private banking mentors, we provide the best banking solution available for our customers. This level of partnering in our bank has provided a tremendous lift to our overall financial performance.

MBJ: Computerworld again ranked Regions among its annual list of “100 Best Places to Work in Information Technology,” clearly emphasizing the company’s focus on technology and its employees. How does this emphasis on technology extend to customers?

CG: The impact of advanced technology can be felt throughout the bank with enhanced access to financial information as well as additional products. Specifically, image technology for our cash management customers had been a significant product benefit. This is but one example of how technology drives the customer experience and overall relationship with our bank. Internally, the ability to offer our associates computer-based training without leaving the office or branch allows us to maximize associate customer facing opportunities.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at lwjeter@yahoo.com.


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