Senior vice president BB&T Financial, Wilson, N.C.

C. Leon Wilson is the first to admit that lie's no technology expert. Yet he has distinguished himself as an operations whiz.

Mr. Wilson was yanked from BB&T's business loan/credit analysis section in 1984 and put in charge of the banking company's operations. Despite a burst of expansion that virtually doubled BB&T's assets over the next five years, he managed to hold operations staffing flat while achieving enormous gains in productivity.

Since 1990, when BB&T accelerated its acquisitions pace by buying up healthy thrifts, Mr. Wilson, 38, has repeatedly integrated the data processing systems of the acquired companies with nary a hitch.

"He's very bright, a really good manager of people," says Henry G. Williamson Jr., BB&T's president and chief operating officer.

A native of Robertsonville, N.C., Mr. Wilson entered BB&T's management training program after graduating from the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. In July 1979, he was transferred to Plymouth, N.C., to head commercial lending.

Mr. Wilson's big break came the next year, when he was sent to Tarboro, N.C., to help straighten out the loan portfolio of a recently acquired bank. He caught the eye of Mr. Williamson, then the bank's acting president.

In 1981, Mr. Williamson was transferred back to the holding company and Mr. Wilson became city executive in Tarboro. A year later, Mr. Williamson called to offer a new position: running the bank's entire operations department, which had become overstaffed and inefficient.

Mr. Wilson mulled the offer over for 10 days, concerned about his lack of operations experience. But he realized that BB&T was looking for a good manager, rather than a narrow technician.

To compensate for his lack of expertise, Mr. Wilson instituted a "participatory management style" in the department, in which his own role is more coordinator than autocrat. "I'm still much more of a generalist, but I have a lot of highly capable functional experts working for me," he says.

One of Mr. Wilson's early innovations was to put BB&T's check proofing operators on an incentive plan. They now average about 2,600 items per hour, compared with 900 in 1983.

Mr. Wilson says he has no interest in returning to corporate lending: "For the time being, the operational side of the bank is providing me with a great deal of satisfaction and challenge. It seems to fit my personality and my nature."

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