IT TOOK Harald R. Hansen seven years to build First Union National Bank of Georgia into a major power across the state. With retirement less than four years away, the veteran banker has no intention of giving up any ground.

First Union and its competitors "are going to fight like hell against each other," said Mr. Hansen, chairman of the bank. "Nobody wants to lose anything, and everybody wants to hover around whatever opportunities there are."

It was 1986 when Mr. Hansen moved to Atlanta, after volunteering to weld a motley collection of acquired community banks into a centralized statewide banking company for First Union Corp. of Charlotte, N.C. He knew it would not be easy.

"He volunteers for the toughest things," said Edward E. Crutchfield Jr., chairman and CEO of the superregional. "He goes into situations where he's not the No. 1 kid on the block, which has certainly been the case with us in Georgia."

First Union began assembling a Georgia franchise shortly before Mr. Hansen moved there, with the purchase of First Railroad and Banking Co., Augusta. The deal brought a decentralized assortment of banks across the Peach State with $4 billion assets but less than $3 billion in the core city of Atlanta.

Mr. Hansen helped make up that deficiency by aiding in the acquisition last year of two Atlanta-area thrifts with $7.2 billion of assets. That deal moved First Union from fourth place in deposit share to second place in the state capital.

Now Mr. Hansen must try to integrate the thrifts without cutting too deeply into profitability.

He acknowledges that the task is daunting. The thrifts hold many CDs offering above-market rates, but their assets are skewed toward low-margin residential mortgages.

Mr. Hansen said he will steer investors to mutual funds or other savings instruments when their CDs mature, while trying to boost commercial loans as a percentage of the portfolio.

Residential mortgageholders, he contends, also represent a great cross-selling opportunity. "The mortgage product is about the last relationship product in banking," he said. "It's where you focus first for service."

Mr. Hansen, 61, never intended to be a banker. After earning a political science degree from Duke University, the Durham, N.C., native served in the Marine Corps from 1956 to 1959. He retired from the reserves as a full colonel in 1986.

He was 38 when he joined First Union in 1969, after a business career spent mostly in factoring. But his leadership and management skills paved the way for a succession of top jobs: division head of credit cards, head of the trust department, city executive for Charlotte, regional executive for that city, and executive vice president of the international department.

"He is a leader first and a technician second," Mr. Crutchfield said. "He picks up what he needs to know along the way."

"First Union gave me more than I was capable of doing at the time," Mr. Hansen said. "At each step of the way, there was opportunity to immerse yourself in something that makes you grow."

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