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Survivors

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DOUGLAS YOUNG

Staff Reporter

Donna Longnaecker is a survivor in the incredible shrinking world of Southern California banking.

She began her career in 1969 at Security Pacific Bank and worked there until the bank was about to be acquired by Bank of America in 1992.

She jumped ship just before the deal closed to join California Republic Bank, but then that bank was also acquired by First Interstate Bank.

Longnaecker found a new home at First Interstate, until that bank was acquired by Wells Fargo Bank last April. She stayed on in a transitional role and was eventually hired by Home Savings of America, after Home Savings bought 61 former First Interstate branches from Wells Fargo, as required by regulators.

Longnaecker remained at Home Savings until she and a colleague were hired at Glendale Federal Bank.

“You have to think, ‘I can survive. I’m still mobile. If I can’t survive, I’ll find a job somewhere else,” Longnaecker said. “There’s definitely no feeling of job security.”

Survivors like Longnaecker are not uncommon in L.A.’s consolidating banking industry, where each new merger puts hundreds of workers out on the street. In the First Interstate-Wells Fargo merger alone, First Interstate’s staff was reduced by some 8,900 employees.

Many of those displaced people both from First Interstate and other mergers have landed on their feet since the layoffs, some in higher-paid, more prominent positions. Still, the looming prospect of being let go is a chronic source of stress as is seeing former colleagues laid off and former workplaces merged out of existence.

Not all of those affected by the local banking industry consolidation have chosen to hang in there. A number of former bankers have left the field altogether to pursue finance-related careers in other industries.

Longnaecker said learning about merger-related job changes repeatedly has been somewhat jolting.

“First of all you panic and say, ‘What’s going to happen now?’ Then you realize it’s beyond your control, and whatever happens is in the hands of other people,” she said.

Personal finances, such as car and house payments, were some of the weightier matters on Longnaecker’s mind after various merger announcements and her subsequent job uncertainties.

“When the Wells acquisition (of First Interstate) was announced, I took money out of my savings account and made six payments in advance on my home mortgage,” she said.

Longnaecker has also put off buying a new car to replace her 1987 model because of reservations about job security.

“There are certain expenses you don’t go out and do because of the uncertainty,” she said.

Debbie Jett Kessel said her first reaction was less one of fear and more one of sadness when First Interstate, her employer of 27 years, was acquired by Wells Fargo. Kessel, who now works at City National Bank, said personal finances were less a concern because of a lucrative severance package she got upon leaving First Interstate.

“You go through stages from shock to sadness,” she said. “It takes a while for reality to set in. And since I’d been with the bank for so long, those were the emotions I felt. It’s like your parents getting a divorce.”

Kessel also may have felt less panicked than Longnaecker because she and three of her former First Interstate colleagues all of them agricultural loan specialists had agreed to stick together and market themselves as a group.

“It was like safety in numbers. For me to go out and market myself would have been extremely frightening,” she said, adding that she didn’t even have a r & #233;sum & #233; prepared at the time of the layoffs.

Kessel also noted that “line unit” people like herself those who can bring clients to a new employer generally have an easier time finding new jobs in banking than “staff” people, who have no regular contact with customers.

Dan Morefield, who also left First Interstate in the Wells Fargo takeover, said such mergers take a big toll on productivity and can hurt morale.

Morefield is currently director of business banking at Great Western Bank, which is the subject of a takeover battle between two rival bidders H.F. Ahmanson & Co. and Washington Mutual Inc.

“We’re an industry that’s going through consolidation, and consolidation means pain. Even if the outcome is good, it’s still a difficult time a time that creates a lot of stress,” he said. “Instead of rolling out new products, we’re busy talking about the effects of the merger.”

Morefield, Kessel and Longnaecker said most of their former colleagues have found work since the most recent layoffs, and most of those who have found work are still in banking-related jobs.

But there are thousands who have left the banking industry altogether. In many cases, these ex-bankers often capitalize on their banking skills to find employment in the financial divisions of non-banking companies, according to Kessel.

“Some have gone to positions like controllers and chief financial officers, while others have gone to title companies and other financial service companies,” she said.

Marilyn Milam, formerly a senior credit officer at First Interstate, now performs similar work at the L.A.-based corporate finance group of Finova Capital Corp., a commercial finance company.

“I just took a look at what the opportunities were, and this was the best opportunity,” she said, noting that she didn’t consider getting out of the banking industry because it was consolidating, she said.

Meanwhile, Longnaecker said she’ll continue to knock on wood and hope her fourth and current employer, Glendale Federal, doesn’t get acquired before she has a chance to retire.

“I only have 10 more years,” she said.

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