Richard Morris Rosenberg retires Thursday as chairman of BankAmerica Corp., ending a remarkable career in which he almost single- handedly invented modern bank marketing, then went on to become one of the industry's most celebrated senior executives.

During 37 years at three California-based institutions, Mr. Rosenberg saw his share of crises - including BankAmerica's near failure in the 1980s - but spent most of his time at the pinnacle in what he recently recalled as "a very satisfying career."

The accolades are pouring in. "He has to rank among the handful of outstanding leaders in the past 20 years," said Alex W. Hart, chief executive officer of Advanta Corp., who served alongside Mr. Rosenberg for many years on the MasterCard International board.

The BankAmerica chief "had a reputation in California as probably one of the most creative people in the retail side of the banking business," recalled Mellon Bank Corp. chairman Frank Cahouet, a onetime boss of Mr. Rosenberg's at Crocker National Bank, which later merged with San Francisco rival Wells Fargo.

Even a persistent critic of the industry, Community Reinvestment Act activist Robert Gnaizda of the Greenlining Institute, called Mr. Rosenberg, now 66, "the best banking leader in the country on issues of CRA and issues concerning low-income and minority communities."

The son of a haberdasher, the native of Fall River, Mass., entered banking in 1959. Coming out of the Navy, he took a job as a publicity assistant at Crocker National more out of necessity than interest in the business - his wife Barbara was six months pregnant.

He soon attracted attention as an unusually energetic banker, an astute salesman who took on what he called "a major role in bringing marketing as a discipline into the banking industry."

He moved to Wells Fargo Bank in 1962. By 1970 he was senior vice president and director of marketing and advertising, on the way to vice chairman in 1980.

In the 1960s, bank marketing was little more than free toasters. Mr. Rosenberg, colleagues said, was one of the first to advocate enlivening branches with flashy marketing materials and staffing them with people motivated to sell. His other prescriptions: work harder at cutting costs, try to develop high-tech alternative delivery channels, and strengthen the brand image.

Such thinking may seem mundane by today's standards, but at the time it was revolutionary. Mr. Rosenberg was the first to package a checking account with savings and other services into a single product when he launched the Wells Fargo Gold account in the 1970s.

He was also the first to view decorative checks as a sales tool. The picture he used - the Wells Fargo stagecoach - launched one of the most recognizable corporate logos in banking.

"Dick was early in that curve of going from caveman-era thoughts about how you manage (retail banking) to the specificity you have today," said Lou Burnett, managing partner with executive recruiter Secura/Burnett Partners in San Francisco. Mr. Burnett worked with Mr. Rosenberg at Wells in the 1960s and 1970s.

Mr. Rosenberg also played a key role in the introduction and success of credit cards. He was Wells' representative in an association of four California banks that formed in the 1960s to compete against Bank of America's BankAmericard and to create what later became MasterCard International.

He remained active in MasterCard affairs for more 30 years, becoming a director in 1981 and serving as chairman in 1985 and 1986.

Mr. Rosenberg left Wells in 1983 to run retail and trust banking at Crocker. Two years later he became president and chief operating officer at Seafirst Corp., BankAmerica's subsidiary in Washington state.

He is credited with improving retail operations at both banks. But his star really rose in 1987 when A.W. Clausen, then BankAmerica's chairman, persuaded Mr. Rosenberg to return to San Francisco and run the flagship bank.

The job was crucial. The California bank's relatively cheap and stable deposit base was said to have been the only thing that saved the company from succumbing to loan-loss problems in 1985 and 1986.

Though alive, Bank of America was stagnating. Its reputation had suffered, and staff morale was low.

Mr. Rosenberg is said to have revived income growth with new products, sales incentives, and sheer force of personality.

"Lots of people" should get credit for the turnaround, he said recently, but "in a subtle and intangible way one of the most important thing that I did was help to restore the pride of the people in the organization."

"He was a motivational powerhouse," said retired BankAmerica vice chairman Glenhall E. Taylor Jr., who was working out credit problems while Mr. Rosenberg was concentrating on the retail bank.

Mr. Rosenberg succeeded Mr. Clausen as chairman and chief executive in May 1990, then set about the empire building that became the most defining and controversial part of his career.

The signature deal was the April 1992 acquisition of $73 billion-asset Security Pacific Corp., which was based in Los Angeles and had branches in seven states. At $4.2 billion, it was the richest banking merger to that point.

While the acquisition solidified BankAmerica's No. 1 standing in California consumer and business banking and greatly expanded its presence outside the state, analysts were split on the merits of the deal.

After the merger was announced, California's economy tanked and Security Pacific's loan losses soared, hurting BankAmerica's earnings in 1992 and 1993.

Mr. Rosenberg said he always kept faith that "it would be an absolutely outstanding merger," hampered only by "a deep recession that even President Bush's own economist" didn't see coming.

Some analysts agreed that BankAmerica would have been far worse off without Security Pacific and that the deal created a foundation for growth after economic recovery.

"It was one of the most accretive deals done this decade," said Goldman Sachs & Co. analyst Robert Albertson, who put first-year accretion, adjusted for the sour economy, at nearly 20%.

Others contended Mr. Rosenberg overpaid. What's more, they viewed the Security Pacific merger and a string of thrift deals outside California as empire-building at shareholder expense.

"He has shown a greater appetite for acquisitions than for making those acquisitions pay for themselves," said PaineWebber Inc. analyst Lawrence W. Cohn.

Mr. Rosenberg said the non-California thrifts are in a rebuilding mode and their initial sluggishness was "absolutely to be expected."

He silenced many critics with the 1994 acquisition of Continental Illinois Corp. A wholesale bank, it diversified a revenue mix that had been concentrated in California retail operations.

In his final year, Mr. Rosenberg presided over a visibly protracted succession deliberation in which a dark horse, former wholesale chief David A. Coulter, got the nod over the putative favorite, chief financial officer Lewis W. Coleman. Mr. Coulter became chief executive in January and is expected to be named chairman upon Mr. Rosenberg's departure.

Mr. Rosenberg also raised eyebrows last year with a pay package valued at $11.8 million, more than any other big-bank chief executive.

Analysts have come around to praising what they see as a new shareholder focus at $234 billion-asset BankAmerica. Its stock has risen 50% in the past year, trading at about $74.50.

All of which leaves Mr. Rosenberg proud of his accomplishments and ready for a post-retirement in which he will serve on five boards of directors, be Bay Area chairman of the United Way, and consider working on a new master plan for public education in California.

"I see a really bright future for the BofA," he said. "Dave Coulter's going to be an absolutely terrific CEO. We've got a balance, both in the operations and the people, to carry it forward."

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