crossroads -- has tapped industry consultant Diane M. Casey to be president and chief executive officer.

Ms. Casey, 42, is slated to join the trade group Dec. 1 and spend a month working alongside Paul A. Schosberg, who said in March that he would step down at yearend after leading the thrift group since its creation in 1992.

In an interview Monday, Ms. Casey said ACB will remain independent and grow by recruiting "progressive community bankers," including executives starting new banks and thrift institutions.

"Our target is going to be the de novo institutions," she said. "We want the more aggressive community bankers. Bankers who say, 'The world is fine the way it is; the Internet is just a blip,' those bankers may not be as comfortable here."

The group's 1998-99 chairman, E. Lee Beard, headed the search committee and said 100 candidates were considered before the list was narrowed to six. Ms. Casey was the board's unanimous choice. "ACB has picked absolutely the right person for this organization," said Ms. Beard, who is also president and CEO of First Federal Bank, Hazleton, Pa.

National director of Grant Thornton's financial services practice since 1995, Ms. Casey previously spent 10 years with the Independent Community Bankers of America, rising to the No. 2 spot. She started her career as an examiner with the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland. She will be the first woman to lead one of the major financial services trade groups.

After months of rumors, members at ACB's annual convention in Orlando were surprised by Ms. Casey's selection. But they enthusiastically supported her. Frank Pinto, president of the Pennsylvania Association of Community Bankers, praised her experience. "She doesn't need any on-the-job training," he said. "She's been there, done that."

"She's a great choice," said Thad Woodard, president of the North Carolina Bankers Association. "She is certainly an extremely well-qualified person to lead the organization."

Washington insiders were also upbeat but said Ms. Casey has her work cut out for her.

"It's a bold choice, and that is what they need because they face a bold challenge," said James J. Butera, a lawyer at Butera & Andrews who represents many thrifts.

Membership has declined 32% in the group's seven years, to 1,373 today. Revenues are off 23.4%, to an expected $17 million this year. Congress just handed the group a hard-fought loss on the financial reform bill by banning the creation of new unitary thrift holding companies and imposing limits on the sale of existing unitaries.

Vocal opposition from some members recently forced ACB to cut off merger talks with the American Bankers Association.

Ms. Casey said the group will remain independent and position itself as the "progressive" alternative to the ICBA and ABA. "Obviously there is going to be competition on all fronts," Ms. Casey said. "But ACB has never shied away from competition."

Kenneth A. Guenther, the ICBA's executive vice president and Ms. Casey's one-time mentor, said 200 thrifts have joined his group, and he predicted the ACB would have a tough time picking off his members. "We are the trade association that exclusively represents community banks," he said. "We don't have to worry about Washington Mutual, Bank of America, or Citigroup."

"I think they've got a tremendously hard sell," said Edward L. Yingling, the ABA's deputy executive vice president. "Why wouldn't a community bank want to belong to the biggest and the strongest, rather than a trade association that is smaller and weaker?"

Lou Nevins, president of the Western League of Savings Institutions, said many community banks will join two or even three national trade groups. "It may not be an either-or," he said. "There are all kinds of dual members. It is not uncommon to join two of the three groups."

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