What gives with Fifth Third Bank?

January 18, 2002

Dear Cecil:

Your column about the origin of the name Milk Duds brings to mind another unusual name. In my work in retailing I frequently see checks and credit cards issued by an institution known as Fifth Third Bank. What kind of name is Fifth Third Bank? Sure, not everyone can be first, and Avis did all right with its we're-number-two-we-try-harder shtick. But third? And not just third, but fifth third? (The Car Talk guys refer to the "third half" of their show, but they're not asking me to entrust them with my money.) What sort of enterprise is so bereft of hope and ambition that it celebrates bringing up the rear?

Oh, I don't know. If you were Milk Duds, wouldn't you think, "This is my kind of bank"?

When we contacted Fifth Third Bank, we learned that the Cincinnati-based company (Number two in the midwest! Seventy billion in assets!) was formed in 1906 from the merger of the Fifth National Bank and the Third National Bank. This naturally begged other questions:

(1) You mean once upon a time we had not one but two financial institutions advertising that they were a little slow out of the blocks? Then again, I suppose it was easy for them to recognize kindred spirits.

(2) If you combine the Fifth and Third banks, aren't you entitled to average things out and call it the Fourth?

(3) What kind of mopes were running the Third that they let the Fifth get its name in front? (Actually, this one's not so tough. The Fifth was the larger institution at the time.)

(4) Did Cincinnati have First, Second, Fourth, and Sixth national banks?

I consulted with my assistant Jenny, who lives near Atlanta. "We have a Second Baptist Church," she said. "I think Sherman burned down the first one, though." Upon investigation we learned that the Second Baptist Church was formed when members of the First Baptist Church decided to split off and establish another church across town, the better to do the Lord's work.

This gave us an idea. Upon further research we learned that:

(1) Numerous cities in the 19th century had Fifth national banks, including New York, Chicago, and Saint Louis. What's more, upon finding an 1889 Cincinnati phone book, we established that the Queen City did in fact have First, Second, Third, Fourth, and Fifth national banks. But no Sixth National Bank, meaning that the Fifth National Bank, in 1889 anyway, was entitled to call itself the Last National Bank.

(2) The late Clem Buenger, former chairman of Fifth Third, used to say the name had been chosen because management feared ticking off the anti-alcohol crowd if the bank were named Third Fifth. I don't know about Milk Duds, but this is my kind of banker.

(3) A few losers are under the impression that the Fifth and Third national banks of Cincinnati were so called because they were located on Fifth and Third streets. Another glance at the phone book revealed that Fifth Bank was actually located on Third Street. We were struck with a horrible thought: What if Third Bank were located on Fifth Street? But Third Bank was located on Third Street too. Phew.

We concluded that in the 19th century, bankers (and church elders) were immune to the shove-to-the-front-of-the-line mindset that curses our times and instead cheerfully acknowledged their place in the natural order of things. Besides, as Mrs. Adams interjected (Jenny by this time had headed out for church or a third fifth, I'm not sure which), maybe the founders of the Fifth banks of the world felt the name indicated a relatively recent arrival on the scene, suggesting a much more with-it operation than you could expect from the mossbacks at First National. Whatever you say, dear.

None of this helps with what, to my mind, is the most baffling corporate numbering scheme in American business today, namely Harold's Chicken Shack on the south side (mostly) of Chicago. Harold's Chicken Shacks are identified (mostly) by number. However, a Chicago correspondent observes, there are a half dozen unnumbered chicken shacks, all presumably vying for the honor of number 1, followed by numbers 2, 6, 7, 8, 9, 13, 14B, 15, 18, 19, 20, 24, 26, 27, 29, 35, 50, 51, 53, 55, 58, 65, and 71. Noting the numerous lacunae in this scheme, one wonders: Is there an unusually high attrition rate in the chicken shack business (the south side is, after all, the baddest part of town), or did Harold just lose track? I don't know. But I bet if he goes to Fifth Third Bank for financing, he'll get a receptive ear.

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