Arthur H. Meehan began his career in 1960 at what was then the world's largest bank - Bank of America. He expects to end it as chief executive officer at a $970 million-asset thrift in Medford, Mass.

As recently as five years ago his career path - he also spent 21 years at Bank of New England before it was acquired by Fleet Financial Group in 1991 - may have seemed unusual.

Today, Mr. Meehan is in strong company.

He can tick off seven or eight other former Bank of New England and Shawmut Corp. executives who are chief executives of community banks in the area.

In fact, more than ever before, community banks are being run by former big-bank executives - many of whom were displaced by industry consolidation. They are finding opportunities at smaller institutions where the top executives are retiring.

One of the results, analysts and bankers said, is a dramatic break from business as usual.

"When you see a community bank that is more aggressive strategically and is growing out of being a community bank through acquisitions, they are often led by those who have been at larger banks," said David Stumpf, an analyst at Wheat First Butcher Singer in Richmond, Va.

Executives raised in a big-bank environment can benefit smaller institutions in numerous ways, according to bankers, headhunters, and analysts. Their management style tends to be distinguished by more attention to cost-cutting, a sales orientation, and higher credit standards.

To be sure, these goals are not new to community banks. The difference is a matter of degree and emphasis.

For example, EurekaBank, a Foster City, Calif., thrift run by two former Bank of America executives, posted a yearend nonperforming asset ratio of 0.37%, about five times better than its peers averaged. Just eight years ago, it was insolvent and in government hands.

Stephen T. McLin, chief executive of EurekaBank's holding company, and thrift CEO Byron A. Scordelis said their experience working through bad loans at Bank of America in the 1980s brought home the importance of credit standards.

Mr. McLin, who worked at Bank of America for 13 years, rising to executive vice president of strategic planning, said their prior experience also taught them what lines of business to stay away from. Transaction- intensive business customers such as grocery stores can sometimes cause more trouble than they're worth, he said.

"We knew the difference between windmills and opportunities, and some of our competitors continue to go after the windmills," Mr. McLin said.

Michael H. Flynn, chief executive of Westport (Conn.) Bank and Trust, says the familiarity with various parts of the state he gained as an officer of the now-defunct Connecticut Bank and Trust has benefited his present bank.

"You just know a little bit more about what's going on," he said. "I've worked everywhere in the state, and that broadens your customer base, whereas many small-town bankers only know their towns."

Executive search consultants who specialize in financial services said the big-to-small trend took off in the early 1990s when regulators, overwhelmed with trouble or failed institutions, were in need of well- trained, qualified bankers to whip them into shape.

The talent pool of true community bankers was limited. The management of the typical small-town bank was handled almost entirely by its chief executive who - in many cases - stayed on the job 20 years or more. That left little room for grooming a younger generation of managers.

As a result, regulators turned to the ranks of the regional banks. The pickings there only increased with the wave of mergers that put many mid- level and upper-level managers on the street.

"The boards of these troubled banks would come to us looking for higher expertise, and we found that we often had to go to the larger banks to find that," said John D. Platte, managing director of the regional-bank practice at Russell Reynolds Associates, a New York headhunting firm.

"They brought a much higher level of sophistication, namely product awareness, marketing skills, and balance-sheet skills - which were so important back then," he said.

Former big-bank executives interviewed for this article said the main thing that attracted them to smaller institutions was the ability to have a larger role and impact on the bank and its community. Others cited the challenge of trying to apply lessons they had learned in a different context.

For James C. McGill, chief executive of $228 million-asset First State Savings Bank in Burlington, N.C., his decision to leave First Union Corp. was based in part on a desire to lay down some roots. With First Union, he was moving to a new post and new town every few years, but he hopes to stay at First State until he retires. Two former colleagues from First Union have joined him, meaning that half of the senior officials at First State are big-bank veterans.

But not everyone agrees those skills and lessons are transferable.

"I wouldn't hire a lifer from Shawmut and put him into a $200 million bank in Concord, N.H., for all the tea in China," said L. Parker Harrell, a Washington-based managing director at the Korn/Ferry International search firm. "The culture is so different."

Mr. Harrell and some others said running a division within a big bank does not make one able to handle the wide range of duties of a small-town bank CEO.

J. Nicholas Hurd, managing director in the Boston office of Russell Reynolds, just completed two searches for community bank CEO openings. Neither one went to a big-bank veteran.

"They didn't want to take one directly from a big bank," he said. "They just felt the fit wasn't right."

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