Employees who pack up and move down the street to a rival bring more with them than a cardboard box full of personal items.

Bankers have extensive knowledge about the successes and failures at their old job, something a new employer can utilize, industry experts say. So it is critical that community banks take steps to make sure that highly regarded employees and valuable executives stay put.

"Next to capital and regulatory issues, talent is the burning issue facing the industry today," says Alan Kaplan, chief executive of executive search firm Kaplan & Associates. "You have to win with better execution, and that always comes down to people."

KeyCorp (KEY) in Cleveland recently snagged Don Kimble, who had been the chief financial officer at Huntington Bancshares (HBAN), as its new CFO. The defection is a loss for Huntington — based in nearby Columbus, Ohio — since Kimble is highly regarded, says Scott Siefers, an analyst at Sandler O'Neill.

"It's not a game changer but it's unfortunate they are parting ways," Siefers says of Kimble leaving Huntington. "It was a good announcement for Key. Don already knows the area well and I imagine there's broad overlap of investors and analysts between the two banks, so there shouldn't be much of a learning curve."

Huntington did not return a call seeking comment. Key could not provide someone for comment.

There are huge advantages in hiring talented employees who already know the local market, says Robert Voth, a managing partner at executive recruiting firm CTPartners. Such hires know how their former employer thrived or struggled in areas like attracting and retaining customers and expanding wallet share with existing clients. Those items are "of great interest," he adds.

Customers often react differently to products or marketing based on geography, so understanding the dynamics of a specific area is a huge plus, Voth says. Hiring talented employees from rivals that serve in revenue-producing roles is ideal, but snagging other high-level managers can also prove beneficial.

Switching jobs is a decision that typically involves several factors, including compensation, corporate culture, advancement opportunity and personal considerations such as family, executive recruiters say.

"People won't usually make the move without getting enhanced compensation," Kaplan says. "But another job might have more responsibilities or more opportunities for succession. Or maybe they just don't like who they are working for."

"People don't leave companies, they leave bosses," says William H.W. Crawford 4th, president and CEO of Rockville Financial (RCBK) in Connecticut. Because of this, Rockville works hard to make sure its managers have the right skills and personality to successfully lead their teams.

"Talent is the one sustainable advantage you can get in this business," Crawford says. "Any other advantages like products or pricing are not really an advantage since the competition can catch up in that."

Rockville has expanded significantly since 2011, when it converted to a stock-owned bank from a mutual holding company. Its assets have increased about 18% from Dec. 31, 2011, to March 31, according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Its work force has increased by 19% over the same period, to 335 employees.

Rockville's compensation is similar to that of its competitors. So market disruption, including First Niagara Financial Group's (FNFG) 2010 acquisition of NewAlliance Bancshares, has produced a bigger benefit.

The company has tried to create an environment where "top performers want to work since they can get things done for customers," Crawford says. Many current employees provide recommendations and referrals for new hires, he says.

Rockville also keeps tabs on "all of the all-stars out there," Crawford says, including rival banks' branch managers and loan officers. Competitors who succeed at stealing business from the company get noticed.

To keep talented executives, it is important to focus on a few things such as pay structure to make sure that the best employees are appropriately compensated, industry experts say. Deferred compensation benefit plans are a good idea, says Rod Taylor, CEO of executive search firm of Taylor & Co. "If they don't have substantial walk-away costs then there is no financial incentive to stay," he adds.

Community banks should also work with promising employees to map out career paths, so those workers will know they have a future at the institution, Kaplan says. Mentoring programs and training are other low-cost ways to keep employees engaged, he adds.

If a bank loses a talented executive, then management must honestly reflect on the reason for the departure. "Many banks underestimate and under-address the war for talent in banking," says Carlos Arboleda, managing director of COI Access.

"Banks that prioritize talent retention and talent acquisition are undoubtedly bound to be far more successful and profitable than their competitors who don't," Arboleda says.