Southeast Banking's New President Hopes to Reverse Earnings Decline: John Porta Stresses Teamwork and Defends His Industry Background

Article excerpt

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- John E. Porta stretches out in his Miami office, puts his feet up on a talbe, and begins talking about Southeast Banking Corp. for all the world, he looks like a contented man.

It's hard to imagine that this is the same John E. Porta who jumped from one hot seat as an executive vice president at Continental Illinois Corp. to an only slightly less toasty spot as Southeast's president and chief operating officer only 4-1/2 months ago.

While the challenge of reviving troubled banks might scare the bejabbers out of some people, it doesn't much frighthen Mr Porta. As he begins the task of rejuvenating Southeast after four relatively stagnant years, he evokes a sense of quiet confidence and purpose.

"Throughout my career, I've been regarded as a good and successful leader," explains the lanky, 52-year-old-Illinois native. "Now that I've been at Southeast for awhile, I known that we can turn things around. We just have to be very open and listen to people's complaints without grudging."

Such has not always been the case at Southeast. Although it was the largest and most successful bank in the state for most of the last decade, Southeast has fallen on hard times in recent years. Since 1980, its earnings per share have fallen 3% -- this at a time when most Florida banks were experiencing unprecedented growth.

With $8.8 billion in assets, Southeast trails the $11 billion-asset Barnett Banks of Florida Inc. and the $9.2 billion-asset Sun Banks Inc. as the largest in the state. The Search for Porta

In an effort to halt this decline, Southeast conducted a nationwide search for a new president, a quest that ended with Mr. Porta's appointment in April. Southeast chairman Charles J. Zwich made no secret of his expectation.

"John Porta will run the day-to-day operations of this bank," Mr. Zwick said in April. "Southeast is on the front edge of a successful turnaround and I think John Porta can help steer us in the right direction."

Since taking the helm, Mr. Porta has been more preacher than skipper. His sermon extols the virtues of teamwork. "An organization elicits the behavior it rewards," Mr. Porta says. "If you reward people for being team players, then you are going to get team play."

Mr. Porta has been hitting the road with the bank's legion of corporate bankers, making sales calls and absorbing feedback. He's visited many of the bank's 165 offices in Florida and is getting to know as many employees as possible.

"I want to give people the feeling they are working in an environment where they are going to be recognized," he says.

While Southeast officials will not say it publicly, it is obvious that part of the reason Mr. Porta was selected is that his personality contrasts nicely with Mr. Zwick's. A former director of the federal Office of Management and Budget, Mr. Zwich is widely respected by analysts as a "fine numbers cruncher" but is often criticized as an aloff leader.

Mr. Porta is warmer, seemingly more at ease with people, and more eager to listen to their complaints.

"Since I've come here, I've heard that we're perceived as being too big and slow, that we're a revolving door for management, and we lack team-work and we're too Miami-oriented," Mr. …