U.S. BANCORP'S Phyllis J. Campbell never intended to be a banker.

Originally a political science major at Washington State University, she switched to business administration in order to pay off her student loans.

But that choice set her on a course that has landed her among a growing sisterhood at the helm of major American banks. In January, she was appointed president and chief executive of the company's second-largest commercial banking subsidiary, U.S. Bank of Washington, which has about $5.6 billion of assets.

"Everything has its time," the 41-year-old executive said in an interview. "In the 1990s, being a woman CEO doesn't seem to be an issue."

Born to a Japanese-American family in Spokane, Ms. Campbell signed on as a management trainee in 1973 at Old National Bank after graduating from Washington State. She rose through a series of branch administration jobs at the bank, which was based in her hometown. She joined U.S. Bancorp when it bought Old National in 1987.

Her drive quickly caught the attention of Gerry B. Cameron, the executive sent from Portland to run the new Washington subsidiary. He asked her to manage his statewide retail network, and then tapped her as CEO when he was promoted to corporate vice chairman in January.

"Gerry was very on her as a people person and administrator," said a business acquaintance.

Ms. Campbell inherited a bank with an excellent profit record but a challenging market position. U.S. Bancorp has lost out on several major expansion bids in Washington, watching in frustration as rivals like Bank America Corp.'s Seattle-First National Bank, Keycorp's Washington State unit, and Washington Mutual Savings Bank scooped up targets the Oregon company had been eyeing.

Antitrust Problem Prevents Acquisitions

The Department of Justice disallowed U.S. Bank of Washington's bid for the divested branches of Bank America and Security Pacific Corp. in Washington on antitrust grounds.

As a fallback, Ms. Campbell will open 15 or more branches in coming months, including nine in the Tacoma area. "We've been put into the No.3 position [among commercial banks], but we don't intend to stay NO.3 for long," she vows.

In her management role, she believes in pushing as much decision-making power as possible down the ranks and encouraging a "total focus" on the customer.

Since Seattle First dominates the state, Ms. Campbell is following a niche strategy. She is focusing on small businesses and the "traditional" bank customer who she says would rather do business with a person than a machine.

In addition, she said, U.S. Bank will be " very aggressive in selling investment products through the branches."

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