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What SunTrust wants from David Stevens

The closest the mortgage industry has to a rock star is David Stevens. Stevens is as media-savvy and polished as they come.

The Mortgage Bankers Association went to great lengths to lure Stevens away from the lead spot at the Federal Housing Administration, according to Nick Timiraos of The Wall Street Journal. But no matter how sweet the MBA deal was, it could not compare to the SunTrust [stock STI][/stock] offer to put Stevens as president of mortgage operations.

Yet, the announcement is curiously under-explained so far. Jerome Lienhard is ceding the position of president of the mortgage division at SunTrust to make way for Stevens. But as CEO of the unit, he will be Stevens’ boss.

So Stevens will still have to answer to the guy who used to be in charge. Also, the health of SunTrust’s mortgage business improved in the first quarter, as related production income returned to a $63 million profit from a $1 million loss a year earlier.

So where is the necessary leadership sea change? The answer is, there isn’t one.

The steady-as-she-goes culture at the mortgage division at SunTrust is deeply ingrained. Both current and former workers in the division say others have tried, and failed, to rejigger operations at the lending unit.

Some of these sources expressed shock at the news of Stevens’ arrival and left them only guessing as to what Stevens could hope to accomplish. Again, numbers are up and the leadership landscape is not exactly being rocked to the core.

But there’s more to that. Sources have said that SunTrust secretly craves the respect of larger, Northern banking institutions and will seek to curry Beltway favor. SunTrust is eager to shed its reputation as a slow-moving Southern bank hailing from an area — Atlanta, Ga. — where the epicenter of bank failures is located. The company’s mortgage operations are located in Richmond, Va., serving the SouthEast United States.

One person I spoke to said Stevens may not only boost the Washington D.C./Wall Street-cred of SunTrust but may very well affect change in ways others before him could not.

“They now have a superstar as their leader,” explained one insider. “Stevens is politically savvy and he knows everyone in D.C. who matters.”

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