For John A. Kanas, the job requirements for a modern bank executive hit home when he and a half-dozen senior managers spent the Fourth of July holed up in the office planning a merger.

"Ten years ago, I would have been spending a nice, four-day weekend relaxing," said Mr. Kanas, chairman and president of North Fork Bancorp of Mattituck, N.Y., whose bank grew from $20 million to $4 billion in 20 years.

"It's still a 9-to-3 job," he said, "but now it's 3 in the morning."

Across the country, bankers are working harder, facing larger challenges, and scrambling to keep up with the advance of technology. Once considered the soul of stability, banking has evolved into a hub of change, an industry permeated by a sense of breakneck competition. The atmosphere is reshaping the way bankers do their jobs, live their lives, and stake their place in society.

Starting today in a weeklong series, American Banker will explore what it means to be a banker in the late 1990s, when industry turbulence is at a peak and job stability at a nadir. Based on interviews with hundreds of bankers and scores of observers, the series takes stock of a profession in flux.

The reporting found a deep sense of anxiety throughout the industry. After all, banks announced some 54,000 layoffs last year alone. Another 14,000 bankers lost their jobs in the first five months of this year.

But a surprisingly large number of bankers are finding cause for real optimism in the upheaval. They maintain that bankers willing to change their ways and learn new skills could face the opportunity of a lifetime. In the process, these people could help the industry reassert itself in the social and economic fabric of the nation.

"This is an industry in the midst of radical change, and change always presents opportunities," says Hugh L. McColl, chief executive of NationsBank Corp. "In fact, I can't think of any industry that offers more opportunity today."

No one, however, disputes that bankers have plenty of work ahead of them.

"It really is a time for soul-searching and assessment of skills," said Timothy D. Dixon, president of the Columbus, Ohio, district of KeyBank.

From the smallest community banks to the largest superregionals, bankers unanimously report that their jobs have grown more complex and entrepreneurial. Areas that once were scorned - technology, operations, marketing - are now prized. Loan officers, once the backbone of a bank, have seen their roles recede.

And something once unthinkable has crept into banks: a "sales culture" that values marketing savvy over more old-fashioned wisdom. This development, like many other changes in banking, is something some view as a negative and others see as a boon.

"If you were a person who would have gone into banking in the 1950s or 1960s, then banking is almost certainly not the profession for you today," said Randall O. Kahn, a former senior vice president at First Interstate who left after the merger with Wells Fargo. For now, he is working as an independent electronic commerce consultant.

"However, if you like to be an agent of change, if you feel comfortable relying on your skills rather than your company for security, banking may be the career for you," he said.

The pace of change and the uncertainty wrought by mergers has done more than rewrite bankers' job descriptions. On a more fundamental level, bankers say the industry's problems have soiled their collective reputation and lowered the public's opinion of them.

"I think the tendency to view bankers on a pedestal and assume that everything they say is accurate is eroding," said Steven A. Bennett, general counsel at Banc One Corp. in Columbus, Ohio.

Indeed, a whiff of malaise pervades the industry. Many college and business school students shun banking careers because they view other financial services jobs - with investment banks, insurance companies, and brokerages, for example - as more lucrative, interesting, and stable.

"I keep trying to get students interested in retail banking, but I keep hearing that downsizing is a negative, and the idea that you may end up working for a large, bureaucratic organization is a negative," said Ralph C. Kimball, a banking professor at Babson College in Wellesley, Mass.

However, bankers in a variety of jobs, from all sizes of banks, said in interviews that they found their work rewarding and would recommend it to young people. Banks are attracting more educated workers to their managerial ranks and compensating them more amply, with salaries that approach but usually do not equal those paid by other types of financial institutions.

And merit has largely replaced family ties as a means of advancement, opening up the field to women, Jews, ethnic minorities, and others who were excluded in the days when business was conducted on the golf course and deals were closed with a handshake.

"My personal experience is that this job is as exciting as it's ever been," said Richard W. Comandich, a senior vice president at US National Bank of Oregon in Portland, whose 18 years in banking have been spent mostly working with technology and alternative delivery channels.

"There's a stronger intellectual component," he said. "You've got serious and interesting marketing challenges. You've also got the situation where all the best retail banks in the country are in the same boat - they've all got smart people and they're all thinking about the same questions, and you're competing in an environment where nobody knows the answers."

Richard M. Rosenberg, who retired in May as chairman of BankAmerica Corp., hails banking as "one of the most wonderful occupations."

"If you're intellectually curious, you get exposed to the whole array of the economy of this country," Mr. Rosenberg said.

Mr. Kahn, the former First Interstate executive, refers to people who thrive in today's banking environment as "challenge junkies."

"For them, banking represents a whole slew of opportunities," he said.

A New Corporate Culture

Banking culture is coming unraveled.

Gone are the days when an entry-level banking position guaranteed a gold watch after 25 years. "Bankers' hours" have been replaced by long, arduous schedules. The social and fraternal side of banking - elbow rubbing in private dining rooms and at clubby get-togethers - has been bulldozed by downsizing. With new work ethics and a culturally diverse staff, performance outshines personality.

But far from being nostalgic for the old days, most bankers and observers say the new way of doing business lends banking a fresh air of professionalism.

"It's a much more meritocratic business," said Martin Mayer, author of the 1974 book "The Bankers." He has just completed a sequel that examines the "new generation" of bankers and concludes that bankers today are more skilled and sophisticated. "There used to be a question of what school you went to, whom you married," Mr. Mayer said. "Family ties were important in banking, and that's gone."

Being white and male was also important, but the value of those attributes is melting. Alice M. Dittman, president and CEO of Cornhusker Bank of Lincoln, Neb., likes to point out that she is no longer the only woman in such a position in her state: Judith A. Owen is president and CEO of Norwest Bank in Omaha.

"And it's not any big deal," Ms. Dittman said.

With diversity on the rise, senior bankers at large institutions are placing a higher premium on well-educated recruits. At least 60% of the management associates Citicorp hires each year are business school graduates.

Meanwhile, banks increasingly are valuing job candidates with new, unbankerly skills. People with backgrounds in technology, retail sales, and stock-picking are now considered ripe for the industry.

The main reason for the change, bankers say, is that the plain vanilla products once proffered by banks have been replaced by a buffet of flavors. Banks are competing not only with other banks but with companies from many industries. And they are making sure that their work forces reflect the range of endeavors that banks must now embrace.

"I think we're broadening the criteria, the net, for the people we're trying to attract into the bank," said Mr. Dixon at Keybank.

Training programs have grown more intensive and specialized. As banks focus on the segmentation of their customer base - offering customized services to people with differing profiles - they are simultaneously tailoring the training of new hires.

"There isn't an off-the-shelf banker anymore," said Jack Morris, a senior communications officer at Citibank. "You get people who come into banking not because they want to be bankers, but because they find it exciting to find new ways to distribute financial products."

Bank executives who held MBAs were a rare breed 30 years ago, said John C. Hover II, executive vice president of personal asset management and private banking at US Trust Company in New York. He was one himself.

"Now most senior bankers have advanced degrees, either law degrees or MBAs or PhD degrees in various subjects," Mr. Hover said. "It just indicates their commitment and knowledge."

Even in small community banks, the job requirements have changed.

"We are today looking for people who are very sales and marketing oriented and people who are comfortable with technology, and that would not have been the case 15, 20 years ago," said R. Scott Jones, chairman and chief executive officer of Goodhue County National Bank in Red Wing, Minn.

"Back then," Mr. Jones recalled, "many people went into banking so that they would not have to be active in the sales process, and of course, that's changed dramatically."

Bankers who once sat at their desks and received customers are now strolling the floor of the branch and pointing out the latest offerings.

And the new push toward alternative delivery channels has made room for a whole new category of banker: the technologist. Once relegated to back- end operations, people with computer know-how are finding new ways to reel in customers. As a result, they are rising rapidly in the corporate structure.

"We used to think that older people were more valuable because they had so much more experience and knowledge," said James R. Barth, a banking professor at Auburn University in Alabama. "Now for the first time, we see younger people with technological skills in the driver's seat, and they can teach the older people."

The Grim Underside: A Profession's Decline

"In the 1940s and 1950s, the banks had somewhere in the order of magnitude of 70% of the financial assets of the United States," recalled Walter B. Wriston, who ran Citicorp for 17 years. "Today they've got 30-odd percent. I do not know another industry that's lost that much market share that's still alive and well."

The industry may be alive and well, but it has lost clout by a variety of measures. Likewise, the cachet of working for a bank has declined, and the titans of banking have largely lost their mystique.

In Mr. Wriston's era, when New York City officials needed help with a financial crisis, they naturally turned to the chairman of Citicorp. His counterpart at Chase Manhattan, David Rockefeller, was sought out by heads of state, who walked an actual red carpet to his office.

Mr. Wriston described today's breed of bank presidents as "administrators."

Mr. Mayer called them something that, in banking parlance, carries even worse connotations.

"Where once bankers had relationships with the decision makers, now they have become vendors," Mr. Mayer said. "Bankers do not have great public prominence today."

Even rank-and-file bankers are finding that, like politicians and lawyers, there is a growing stigma attached to their profession.

"I think it goes back to the old Westerns, when the bankers were wearing the black hats and foreclosing on everybody's land," said Robert W. Moyer, president and CEO of Wilber National Bank of Oneonta, N.Y.

In this era, the backlash against bankers has taken on a different hue: Consumers complain about fees, long teller lines, and branch closings. The hostility has taken a personal toll on bank employees and has contributed to the erosion of bankers' social status.

"When you went to a cocktail party and someone asked you what you did and you said, 'I'm a banker,' it used to immediately set you apart from other people - it was a status symbol," said psychologist Dr. Joyce Brothers. "But now people are angry at their bankers, angry at banks."

Edward F. Mrkvicka Jr. agrees wholeheartedly. He has made a career of criticizing banks in books and as a radio talk show host.

"Judging from the phone calls I've gotten on the air for the last six or eight months, customers are angrier than they have ever been at banks," said Mr. Mrkvicka, who served as president and CEO of the First National Bank of Marengo, Ill., in the 1970s before retiring in disgruntlement. "One lady told me that the bankers at her local branch look like postal workers on Valium - they just sit there and don't do a single thing."

Hostility from the public is just one new career stress that bankers face. On a more practical level, bankers are fearful for their own jobs and, in some cases, for the survival of their banks.

"Would I put my son into this career? I don't know," said Steve Barlow, chief operating officer at Mechanics National Bank of Paramount, Calif. His hesitance, he said, stems from dwindling career opportunities and a shrinking job pool.

Ten years ago, there were 4,369 more banks in America than there are today. And there were 104,000 more banking jobs, according to the FDIC.

Laid-off employees of Chase Manhattan Bank have gone so far as to form an alumni association, a support group that meets regularly to share sardonic jokes about how many members are working as "independent consultants."

Uncertainty is most pronounced at banks that have recently merged. Karen F. Goldman, a real estate broker with Halstead Property Co. in New York, sees this shakiness reflected in home sales.

"A lot of my banker clients say their careers are uncertain at this point," Ms. Goldman said. "It brings out all their conservative instincts."

The Compensation Factor

Twenty-eight-year-old J. Scott Wisdom has enjoyed the six years he has spent working for banks. The experience he has gained has been invaluable, he says. But now he itches to move to an investment bank or perhaps a management consulting firm.

The reason? Money.

"The common theme for my peers is to get out of banking," said Mr. Wisdom, who is a product manager at Wells Fargo. "A lot of it is stability - though that hasn't been a major factor for me - and part of it is compensation."

Though bank salaries are rising, they still lag behind the pay at nonbanks financial companies. Rose Marie Orens, a partner at KPMG Peat Marwick who helps compile an annual compensation survey, said typical Wall Street pay packages are "at least" 25 percent higher than those at banks.

But the gap is shrinking.

"In the old days, bankers didn't really get paid that well," Ms. Orens said. "It was more, 'you're lucky to come and work here, and you'll stay here your whole life.'"

In the 1980s, as deregulation changed the way banks did business and the stock market boom brought prosperity to stockbrokers and mutual fund companies, banks raised managers' salaries as a defense tactic, Ms. Orens said.

"Investment banks were stealing people like crazy, and it wasn't too difficult to steal them," Ms. Orens said.

Then, she said, banks moved to the opposite extreme. "They started paying some of their people like investment bankers without making the same profits," she said. "It created a lot of inequities within the banks' lines of business."

In keeping with banks' new emphasis on achievement through merit, compensation experts say they are noticing that bonuses and other forms of incentive pay are forming an increasingly important part of bankers' pay packages.

As a result, many bankers who survive the whirl of consolidation often are paid substantially more than their predecessors. This is especially true in the executive suite.

"You get fewer top executives, but you get much-better-compensated ones," said J. Lee McCullough, a principal at William Mercer Inc.

Just how well off are these executives? Bankers clearly can afford some of life's more sumptuous pleasures - yachts, country homes, and nice cars. But for most, the playthings of the super-rich are beyond reach. On St. Simon's Island, Georgia, where Bob Hamer sells airplanes, the least expensive model - a single-engine plane that sells for $75,000 - is known as "The Banker's Special." The $1 million Lear jets that are Mr. Hamer's bread and butter sell to real estate developers, he said.

The fact is, banking no longer appears to be a place to amass a personal fortune. At Forbes Magazine, fewer and fewer bankers come up for consideration for the annual survey of the 400 wealthiest Americans.

Peter Newcomb, who runs the project for Forbes, said he couldn't remember the last time a banker was added to the list.

"They're being replaced by executives at overpriced software companies," he said.

Charity and the Community

Tradition holds that a bank president is tapped to serve as head of everything from the local Rotary Club and the Chamber of Commerce to the United Way campaign and the hospital fund drive.

And in hundreds of smaller communities, that tradition holds strong. But in larger cities, individual bankers are playing less-visible roles.

"I'm not sure bankers are as much a part of the civic fabric," said Richard Johnson, who has edited the "Page Six" society gossip column in the New York Post for more than 10 years and has seen fewer bankers at charity functions.

He attributes the change to the larger size of New York banks and their decreased reliance on local business.

Mr. Wriston added: "Years ago, some board seat quote-unquote 'belonged' to Mani Hani or JP Morgan or Citi," said Mr. Wriston. "One guy or woman after another filled this seat as a representative of that bank. I think it is a rarity now that a seat belongs to some institution or business."

Although bankers' involvement has dwindled, the banks themselves have been increasing their budgets for charitable contributions - by 2% to 5% a year, according to The Conference Board. Banks also have boosted their levels of community reinvestment lending.

Officials at nonprofits say that the banks themselves appear to be giving more generously to the community but that the donations merely compensate for the decreased community involvement of individual bankers in large cities.

Helmer N. Ekstrom, president of the American Association of Fundraising Council's Trust for Philanthropy, said job shrinkage in the banking industry has reduced the number of executives available to work with nonprofits. And heightened competition among banks has left remaining executives with less time to devote to outside concerns.

Bank presidents echo this sentiment, adding that the charitable efforts they do squeeze in earn them meager applause.

"You need to spend more time running your business than reaching out to the community, and the regulators don't give you much of a plus for community involvement," said Anthony S. Abbate, CEO of Interchange State Bank in Saddle Brook, N.J.

End of Bankers?

In the most extreme scenario, the job called "banker" could disappear entirely.

"Substantially fewer human beings are going to be involved in the retail commercial banking business," predicted R. Dan Brumbaugh Jr., a San Francisco-based banking economist. "In the near future, almost all financial services are going to be done electronically."

Banks are rushing to post their service offerings on the Internet, and a handful have gone so far as to enable customers to conduct banking transactions on line.

But at many banks, the old traditions still flourish.

"I sit at the same desk my father and grandfather sat at, live in the house that my grandfather owned and my father lived in, and have been president of the Chamber of Commerce, which my father was," said Charles V. Wait, the third-generation president and CEO of Adirondack Trust Company of Saratoga Springs, New York. He described his job as "the financial version of the country doctor."

For all the differences in style, many bankers are still drawn to the industry for the same reasons: the satisfaction of watching businesses grow from scratch, the pleasure of seeing families become homeowners, the delight of helping people save for the future.

"The fun is still there," said Howard McMillan, president of Deposit Guarantee Bank of Jackson, Miss. "The interpersonal relationships you have with your associates and your customers - that's the most satisfying part. There's no way to describe it."

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