The Southwest desert is an improbable place to find a campus for educating the next generation of global commercial and investment bankers.

But it's no mirage. Here, past the bungalows, gas stations, and strip malls, on the site of an old Army airfield, lies what is arguably the nation's best training ground for bankers who will ply their trade in foreign lands.

Its official name: Thunderbird, the American Graduate School of International Management.

Bankers say it is a rarity among graduate business programs. Though students at many of the nation's elite business schools learn their share of international finance theory, those at 51-year-old Thunderbird learn the nuts and bolts of international banking.

"The main idea is competence," said F. John Mathis, the executive director of Thunderbird's International Trade and Finance Center. "We train people so that they are able to conduct business."

Thunderbird's rise to prominence in the banking world underscores the globalization of financial markets as well as a recent rise in demand among banks for experts in areas such as trade finance, foreign exchange, risk analysis, marketing, financial derivatives, loan syndications, securitization, project finance, and lending to governments.

The school's close links to banking are not accidental. U.S. banks like BankAmerica Corp., Chase Manhattan Corp. Citicorp, J.P., and Morgan & Co. all actively recruit from Thunderbird as do foreign banks like Italy's Banca Commerciale d'Italia, Spain's Banco Santander, Royal Bank of Canada, and Japan's Sanwa Bank.

As a result, many of the school's 1,500-member graduating classes move directly into banking. Among them: Beatrice E. Cueto, who heads private banking for southern Latin American at Bankers Trust New York Corp. in Miami; Kathleen M. Sifer, director of international banking at Barnett Bank in Miami; and George Fugelsang, chief executive for Dresdner Bank A.G. in North America; and Gail Landazuri, head of worldwide marketing for the bank's third-party processing unit.

But recruiting is only part of the link between Thunderbird and banks. Over the last few years, its focus on international management has turned it into a choice location for executive training.

Last year, for example, the Washington-based Bankers Association for Foreign Trade joined forces with the school to set up the International Trade and Finance Center.

Graduates like Ms. Sifer and Ms. Landazuri said the school's mix of banking and language training and its emphasis on doing business across a wide range of cultures makes it a favorite target for bank recruiters.

"Thunderbird is a great resource for banks because graduates have a sense of what the business world is about rather than theories about marketing, and you're more comfortable in an international environment," said Ms. Landazuri.

"Courses are pragmatic, so you hit the ground running when you get out."

Graduates said they are part of a tight-knit alumni corps around the world more than willing to help a fellow graduate in unfamiliar surroundings.

"It's a very supportive network of people who bond very quickly," said Ms. Sifer, who has relied heavily on Thunderbird graduates for assistance as she moved from assignments in Chile to Argentina to Miami.

Few people better understand what banks need than Mr. Mathis.A former bank economist and policy analyst, he joined the faculty of Thunderbird in 1988 after a two-decade career that included stints at Chase Manhattan, Continental Illinois National Bank, and the World Bank.

Though many banks bemoan the lack of qualified international banking talent, Mr. Mathis blames banks themselves for much of the current shortfall.

"Banks cut back in international area after the Third World debt crisis began in 1982 and then began downsizing," he pointed out.

At many institutions, he added, "people with experience just weren't there anymore."

To be sure, in a country still mainly focused on domestic business and in a world dominated by the English language and U.S. management practices, international graduate schools are still something of an oddity.

"Let's face it," said Mel Copen, senior vice president at Thunderbird. "Americans tend to feel more comfortable with other Americans, and people in the United States tend to speak English, or maybe English and Spanish."

But the growing demands of international markets, especially among regional and superregional banks, is prompting many institutions to reconsider the need for training.

"Global trade is increasing, our customers are discovering new markets, but we find banks are ill prepared to accommodate a lot of that growth," remarked Richard P. Ferris, executive vice president for international banking at Norwest Corp.

"Versus other countries, we're quite a bit behind understanding how to do business globally, and we've got a lot of catching up to do. We view Thunderbird as one of the vehicles for that."

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