As an investment banker at Bank of America Corp. for 10 years, Jef Fowler believed he had it made.

He was part of a team arranging financing for big leveraged buyouts, shuttling between London, New York and the bank’s headquarters in Charlotte, N.C. It was the life he had envisioned as a teenager growing up in Chicago and watching the iconic 1987 movie “Wall Street.”

In July, though, the 42-year-old Mr. Fowler left the second-largest U.S. bank by assets, where he was a director covering private equity, and moved to Cleveland. He joinedKeyCorp, a regional bank with a loan portfolio a tenth the size of Bank of America’s, to do a similar job.

The deals at KeyCorp are smaller—and so is the paycheck—but becoming a big fish in the relatively small pond of regional banking has its advantages. In his new role, he can take on a larger role in the bank, while enjoying the benefits of living in the Midwest.

“It’s very entrepreneurial,” says Mr. Fowler. At Bank of America, he says he was one among legions of bankers focused on “elephant hunting” for billion-dollar deals that have become increasingly scarce. By contrast, at KeyCorp, “there’s a real energy and excitement here,” he says.

Wall Street has long been a young person’s game—a sink-or-swim culture with a high burnout rate. It is not uncommon for traders and bankers to spend a couple of decades at a large bank and then bolt for a hedge fund, a second career or even early retirement. Now, with layoffs increasing, some are also taking the option of going to smaller banks.

The New York state comptroller’s office predicted this month that Wall Street would cut 10,000 jobs by the end of 2012, bringing the total losses since January 2008 to 32,000. Bank of America last month announced global staff cuts of 30,000, or 10% of the firm’s workforce.

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