Vice president First of America, Oshtemo, Mich.

Adrian Horton fends off disaster every day, and he couldn't be happier.

Mr. Horton, 38, is First of America Corp.'s point man for merger strategy. His charge is to ensure that nothing goes wrong with each new bank that the expansionist Michigan company adds to its empire.

Calling itself a "super community bank," the Kalamazoo-based institution has merged 36 smaller companies into its fold in the three years since Mr. Horton has led the conversions and mergers group. As part of that process, he was responsible for converting 31 banks' computer systems to a unified corporate standard.

First of America's core strategy is to consolidate the back offices of the community banks it acquires while leaving the front offices independent to market products to local customers.

Mr. Horton's group includes 70 specialists dedicated to making the strategy work. In addition to consolidating computer and check processing operations, it is charged with retraining bank personnel and ensuring that targeted cost savings are met -- through layoffs and other means.

"This industry is going through tremendous consolidation -- seismic change -- and I'm right at the center of it," Mr. Horton says with exuberance.

First of America officials say Mr. Horton's job makes or breaks the bank.

"I can't tell you how important it is," says John Brecht, president of First of America's operations unit. "What Adrian does is absolutely critical."

That Mr. Horton is doing the job at all sometimes gives him pause. It's far from what he expected to be doing 20 years ago.

While an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, Mr. Horton studied microbiology and physiology, with dreams of becoming a doctor.

But during the summers, he worked at First of America's flagship bank in Detroit. He liked the environment so much that he signed up as a management trainee after graduation in 1976.

Before assuming his current post at the epicenter of expansion, Mr. Horton did stints as a teller, customer service representative, and operations manager.

Genes may have been a factor in his career path. Mr. Horton's father, James, retired last year after spending his entire career at National Bank of Detroit, where he last worked as international lending officer.

Nevertheless, Mr. Horton, whose wife is also a banker, sees some irony in his professional fate.

"I guess I've become a doctor of conversions," he says.

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