Bankers often keep a low profile, but Charles Coltman 3d remembers the time he had to go incognito to get his job done.

It was September 1979, and Mr. Coltman had been dispatched to Iran by his employer, Philadelphia National Bank, to collect funds due from Iranian banks after Islamic fundamentalists seized power. Assessing the situation in strife-torn Teheran, Mr. Coltman discarded his business suit for a scruffy shirt, sandals, and a three-day growth of beard.

"It was the worst experience I've ever been through," says Mr. Coltman, 55, now executive vice president and head of global corporate banking at First Union Corp. "You could really feel the hate."

Appalled by the chaos and danger, he subsequently ordered Stephen Nichols, the bank's representative in Teheran and now head of First Union's Hong Kong operation, out of the country.

"The danger people sitting in the middle of an abnormal situation face is that they get used to it," Mr. Coltman recalled. "Coming in from outside, I could see how bad things had gotten right away."

As an international banker, Mr. Coltman still faces his share of crises. In fact, early signals warned him well ahead of the current financial crisis in Asia to start hedging his bets.

"We looked at liquidity, we looked at cash, and we looked at how much money was coming out over a given time frame," Mr. Coltman said. "What we saw in Asia was lack of experience among people investing and lending large amounts of money in those countries."

At many other banks, he added, people who had experienced the Latin American and other debt crises of the 1980s and could have read the signals "weren't around anymore, because they had either been fired or moved to other parts of the bank.

"You have to have career people on the credit side with enough experience who have been through it before," Mr. Coltman said. "And they have to have the authority to stand up and say 'no' when it's necessary."

In one form or another, Mr. Coltman's own life has alternated between chaos and calm.

Born in Washington in 1943, he is a descendant of one of George Washington's staff officers. His great-grandfather, Robert Coltman, a physician, moved to China from Philadelphia in 1880 as a medical missionary but wound up working for Standard Oil as the company's Peking representative and as doctor to the Chinese empress dowager.

His grandfather, Charles, who ran a company that traded between the city now called Beijing and the Mongolian capitol of Ulan Bator, was the first person to bring a motor car to the Gobi Desert. He guided Roy Chapman Andrews on the expedition that found the first dinosaur eggs.

His father, Charles 2d, was a reporter for the North China Daily Star, covering the Sino-Japanese War before going to work for the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, first in Nanjing and later in Bangkok, after Communist forces seized control of China in 1949.

Charles 3d spent a year in Nanjing before moving with his family to Bangkok, where he became fluent in the Thai language. After nine years in Thailand he moved to the United States to attend boarding school in Pennsylvania and then college at Tufts University, where he graduated in 1964 with a degree in political science.

Drafted into the Army a year later, he spent two years with military intelligence in Vietnam and several more in counterintelligence at the Pentagon before quitting the government in 1970 to join Philadelphia National. The bank later was renamed CoreStates Financial Corp. and was bought by First Union in April.

"Government was stifling," Mr. Coltman said. "I took the first job I could find to get out."

After several years in Australia, where he ran the local subsidiary of Philadelphia National, Mr. Coltman wound up back in Philadelphia in the middle of the 1982 international debt crisis, fighting a new kind of war.

"Basically, money-center banks were trying to reschedule Latin America debts to their own advantage, at the expense of the regionals," Mr. Coltman said. "My job was to defend the interest of the regionals."

His top priority at the moment is broadening First Union's global market share in the correspondent banking business, including outsourcing, as that business changes and becomes more complex.

"Business between the world's banks is becoming increasingly concentrated among fewer and bigger players," Mr. Coltman observed.

In contrast to past correspondent banking practice, when one bank might supply another with a single product such as letter of credit services, First Union is now striking high-volume, long-term agreements for a broad range of transactions such as payments, cash management, automatic clearing house services, and trade systems.

His second top goal, he said, is building a capital-markets-oriented business on top of the old CoreStates correspondent banking network.

That covers everything from private placements for banks to foreign exchange and interest rate derivatives, asset securitization, trading, loan syndications for banks, global asset management, and international cash management. As in correspondent banking, First Union's focus is mainly on banks outside the United States rather than foreign corporations.

First Union may go even further on the international scene. At a meeting in May of members of the Bankers Association for Foreign Trade in Boca Raton, Fla., First Union chairman Edward Crutchfield stunned the industry by suggesting that U.S. banks, including his own, might soon take cross- border stakes in other banks as a first step toward building global alliances.

Other bankers speak highly of Mr. Coltman's abilities.

"He's a true professional in the business of banking," said Darin Narayana, president of BancOne International Corp. in Dallas. "He's got tremendous experience. He blends the best of credit management and domestic and international banking."

And analysts said they see no reason to challenge First Union's strategy.

"Correspondent banking is a scale business," said R. Harold Schroeder, a banking analyst at Keefe, Bruyette & Woods Inc., "so to the extent to which you can pull in more customers and spread your costs over a broader base, the better off you are.

"And companies like First Union that have built up a broader base of noninterest operations, including capital markets, will be in a far better position than banks that have stuck to credit-related operations."

Still, Mr. Coltman said he suspects the current crisis in Asia has reduced enthusiasm for overseas activities, especially at banks that saw foreign business as a quick way to boost revenue.

"Experienced players will continue to expand internationally," Mr. Coltman predicted. "But my gut feeling tells me that the Asian crisis has probably given some institutions a real pause." First Union itself has no intention of pulling out. In fact, Mr. Coltman said, the bank is "selectively " building back business in Asia after cutting its exposure to the region this year.

"Spreads are widening in Asia," Mr. Coltman observed. "The trick is to know when to reduce to exposure and when to aggressively increase it again."

And when a bank does decide to move back into a financially troubled region, he added, it should do so quickly and aggressively.

"That's when you maximize your returns," Mr. Coltman said.

He added that the nearly three decades he has spent in international banking have also given him an optimism and a historical perspective he might not have gotten otherwise.

"I've witnessed incredible progress around the world over the last several decades," he said. "Everywhere I go, I see people living better and living freer and, I think, happier."

On a more personal level, he said he plans to maximize his own returns by retiring before turning 60. After that, he said, he will probably go to the places he never had time to visit and look for a teaching post, most likely in the international domain.

"My wife, Joann, is a retired United Airlines flight attendant, and gets free tickets," Mr. Coltman explained. "We plan to use them."

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