BankAmerica Corp.'s Robert Flowers once distinguished himself as a Marine captain in the jungles of Vietnam.

His latest assignment may not be as harrowing, but it has its challenges.

As the new head of BankAmerica's retail brokerage division, Mr. Flowers has been given marching orders to revamp the unit and boost profits at a time when it is striving to break away from the pack of bank brokerage firms. Part of Mr. Flowers' job will be to help build the assets of the proprietary Pacific Horizon funds.

But don't expect Mr. Flowers to be pushing the investment product of the month. In recent months, the outspoken Mr. Flowers has criticized the banking industry in general for pushing proprietary mutual funds and annuities instead of focusing on customers' best interests.

Lucky for him that BankAmerica has set no sales or growth targets that the funds must meet, a banking company spokesman said.

"I think BofA is committed to making the evolution to a financial services company," Mr. Flowers says.

As it pursues this course, the San Francisco banking company has many potential advantages.

One of the top banking companies in the investment products business, BankAmerica, with assets of $223 billion and close to 2,000 retail branches, has a huge base from which to draw potential retail investment customers.

It was the second-largest seller of mutual funds among banks in 1994, surpassed only by Mellon Bank Corp. and its Dreyfus fund family.

But about 90% of BankAmerica's 1994 gross mutual fund sales were in money market funds, which are generally less profitable than stock and bond funds.

And retail assets of BofA's family of the proprietary Pacific Horizon funds have grown much more slowly than those of smaller crosstown rival Wells Fargo & Co.

"Bank America, as the largest retailer in the country, is uniquely positioned to sell investment products," says Geoffrey Bobroff, a bank consultant based in East Greenwich, R.I. "But BofA has struggled with management and cultural issues."

Mr. Flowers, 50, was hired at BankAmerica at the end of August 1994 to replace John O. Myers, who stepped down after just 15 months on the job. The banking company has declined to say why Mr. Myers left.

BankAmerica has since centralized the management of private banking, trust, and brokerage operations in the person of Alexander Anderson, a 22- year veteran of Wells Fargo, who was hired in November.

Mr. Flowers reports to Mr. Anderson. The integration of those areas could give Mr. Flowers' brokerage arm a large natural customer base to tap.

Personable, with a quiet intensity, Mr. Flowers races a 1974 Porsche 935 when he can find the time.

Throughout his career, he has made an impression on people.

As a retail broker at Paine, Webber, Jackson & Curtis in Akron, Ohio, in the late 1970s, Mr. Flowers was asked to set up financing for a start-up engine parts company. Once he set up the financing, the venture capitalists asked Mr. Flowers to head the company, Custom Motor Design and Manufacturing, based in Cincinnati.

He loved the job - "I'm a frustrated engineer" - staying for five years. When he decided to leave, because of the intensive pace, he landed his first job in bank brokerage, at First Union.

Mr. Flowers headed the banking company's brokerage services until 1992, when he moved to the same position at Banc One Securities, where he helped set up an ambitious retail branch strategy. A management shake-up, however, sent him packing.

Now Mr. Flowers works in a BankAmerica office building in downtown Oakland, across the bay from corporate headquarters. But he spends plenty of time outside the Bay Area, visiting BankAmerica's investment operations, which include over 400 full-service brokers in Arizona, California, Hawaii, New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon, and Texas.

Mr. Flowers says he's planning major changes, but is coy when asked to give specifics.

He said the brokerage unit is building up its reporting capabilities by tying together computer systems, and is revamping the discount brokerage.

"Banks need to find a way to talk to a mass amount of customers, not unlike what Schwab does," he says.

As part of his efforts to improve the brokerage unit, Mr. Flowers has hired "between 25 and 30" people to fill positions in compliance, training, and data processing.

"Part of the secret of this business is learning when a person who is saying yes is actually saying no," he says.

Mr. Flowers is revamping the compensation paid to brokers to get their interests more in synch with customers' best interests.

Compensation will be tied to asset growth over time, and the unit will scrutinize the volatility of assets over time.

This year, the brokerage unit's assets have increased, but revenues are flat. That's largely because customers have shifted away from mutual funds and annuities to less profitable government bonds, Mr. Flowers said.

Mr. Flowers is also making waves outside the confines of his banking company. In a recent letter to the National Association of Securities Dealers, Mr. Flowers warned that if the organization's proposed rules governing bank brokerages' sales of investment products are adopted unchanged, his institution and others might decide to give up their brokerage licenses.

What made the letter particularly noteworthy was that Mr. Flowers serves on the NASD bank broker-dealer committee, which is advising the association on the rules.

Since that time, Mr. Flowers contends that the NASD has become more receptive to the banking industry's concerns.

What would Mr. Flowers like his legacy at BankAmerica to be?

"I'd like customers to say, 'BofA went out of its way to find out my needs, and came back with very thoughtful, intelligent solutions.'"

"That's the best thing anyone could say about us," Mr. Flowers says.

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