Barnett Banks Inc., taking advantage of organizational uncertainty at Fleet Financial Group, has snared Fleet's top investment products executive.

Richard H. Jones will start work in mid-July as Barnett's chief asset- management executive - a plum position that puts him in charge the $42 billion-asset company's entire retail savings and investment business.

With the move to Jacksonville, Fla.-based Barnett, Mr. Jones is swapping a hazy future for a clearer one. Fleet is preparing to merge later this year with Shawmut National Corp., and Mr. Jones was said to be in a tight race with his counterpart at Shawmut, Michael Rothmeier, to head the investment business.

Mr. Jones, who will step down as president and chief executive of Fleet Investment Services on June 30, was on vacation and could not be reached for comment.

During five years at Fleet, Mr. Jones was credited with establishing the $49 billion-asset company as an innovator in the investment products field.

Under his direction, the Providence, R.I., company launched a no-load family of mutual funds - an unusual move in the banking industry, where funds that levy sales charges are the norm. And in December 1992, Fleet became the first banking company to create its own annuities, a move that has since been imitated by more than a dozen other big banks.

But Mr. Jones also presided over some painful changes. Last year, amid a massive restructuring at Fleet, he trimmed his 2,000-member work force by 15%. Two former colleagues, speaking off the record, praised Mr. Jones as a bright and ambitious manager but faulted him for what they described as a hard-nosed approach to reorganizations.

Mr. Jones' departure from Fleet - coming as Fleet and Shawmut were preparing to decide which of 30 to 40 senior executives would win coveted slots as department heads - caught some industry observers off guard.

"It's the first high-level defection that we've seen in advance of the Shawmut deal," said Nancy Bush, a bank analyst with Brown Brothers Harriman Inc., New York.

But several others said Mr. Jones had probably gone as far up the corporate ladder as he could at Fleet, and was wise to make the move to Barnett.

"He saw an opportunity to have much more power, even though Barnett is a smaller institution," said Geoffrey Bobroff, a mutual fund consultant in East Greenwich, R.I. After its merger with Shawmut, Fleet's assets will top $80 billion.

In the newly created position at Barnett, Mr. Jones will manage retail deposits, trust, brokerage, private banking, and insurance services - a broader range of duties than those he has at Fleet.

He will also oversee Barnett's $3.4 billion-asset family of mutual funds, the Emerald Funds, and will also serve on the bank's 10-member management operating committee.

"Richard will provide the expertise necessary to make Barnett a national leader in providing financial services that meet the ever-expanding investment needs of today's customer," said Barnett's president, Allen L. Lastinger Jr., in a prepared statement.

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