By hiring three senior bankers this week from BankAmerica Corp., Bear, Stearns & Co. signaled that it is serious about entering syndicated lending.

The Wall Street firm confirmed Tuesday that it had hired Keith Barnish, head of international and U.S. originations at BankAmerica, and Mark Lies, co-head of BankAmerica's corporate structuring, to jointly run a new leveraged syndicated lending group. Bear Stearns also nabbed Steve Capp, BankAmerica's head of Latin American syndication.

Bear Stearns is a relative latecomer to syndicated lending; other Wall Street firms began entering the field five years ago. However, observers said, the caliber of hirings suggested that the firm has high ambitions.

"It's a strong, bold move that shows deep pockets," said the syndicated lending chief of a top-five firm. "It surprised a lot of people in the market."

Rivals are especially impressed by Mr. Barnish, who was head of syndicated lending for San Francisco-based BankAmerica until its merger with NationsBank Corp. last September.

"He's a great hire and I'm sure will do a great job," said Bruce W. Ling managing director and head of syndicated finance for Credit Suisse First Boston. "He's a syndicator's syndicator in that he's a great salesman but knows the nuts and bolts of the business."

Though many Wall Street firms have come to see syndicated lending as a key service for corporate clients, Bear Stearns has been absent from the market, except for a small trading desk formed in 1997.

The hiring capped a yearlong search for leadership of a new syndications team. A market source said the search had included an offer late last year to a senior banker at Merrill Lynch & Co. that was rejected.

Bear Stearns officials could not be reached to comment on Wednesday. But in a written statement Don Mullen, senior managing director and head of fixed income credit markets, said the new group would provide an "important new product for our investment banking effort." Mr. Barnish and Mr. Lies will report to Mr. Mullen.

This isn't the first time Mr. Barnish has made waves by jumping jobs. In March 1997, he accepted an offer to be the new head of loan syndication for the Americas at Societe Generale in New York. But within a week he did an about-face, accepting a counteroffer to stay at BankAmerica. Societe Generale eventually hired former Citicorp loan chief Robert Woods.

Mr. Barnish's career took another turn after the merger with NationsBank when he was named to the No. 2 job behind NationsBank's Thomas W. Bunn.

For BankAmerica, the abrupt loss of three key executives may leave it in the lurch for the short term. But by Tuesday evening, Mr. Bunn was meeting with his team to hash out plans that might include a minor reorganization of the loan department's hierarchy.

A front-runner has emerged for Mr. Barnish's old duties-Arrington Mixson, a former NationsBank executive who specialized in loan structuring and, until Monday, was co-head of corporate originations with Mr. Lies.

Nevertheless, there was some sense of shock when Mr. Barnish, Mr. Lies, and Mr. Capp announced to co-workers Monday that they would be joining Bear Stearns the next day.

"People felt like they were terrific team members who had their place," said one BankAmerica source, adding: "That's a roundabout way of saying, 'Yes, we're surprised.'"

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