Liam E. McGee, a rising star in BankAmerica Corp., has given up a high-profile assignment as head of California retail banking there to take a much less visible role running support services, a check processing and central purchasing division..

He will be succeeded as head of California retail by one of his chief lieutenants, Barbara J. Desoer, 43, who previously managed BankAmerica's Northern California branch network.

Mr. McGee, 41, is the youngest of the 33 executives to hold the title of group executive vice president or higher at BankAmerica, which has $241 billion in assets. He also is widely thought to have a bright future at the company, with prospects for promotion to vice chairman in the not-too-distant future.

On one level, it is surprising that Mr. McGee would give up an area as core to the company as its 1,000-branch network in California to take over an unglamorous support services division.

But bank officials and sources close to Mr. McGee insisted that the change is a positive for his career. They said BankAmerica chairman David A. Coulter is giving Mr. McGee broader experience that will improve his prospects for promotion.

"People in the bank are high on Liam," a bank spokesman said. " This will help broaden his perspective."

"I think they're grooming him and broadening him out for a very high- level, vice-chairman-type position," added a senior BankAmerica executive, who asked not to be named.

Mr. McGee was unavailable for comment, a bank spokesman said. The change was effective July 9.

Mr. McGee, a native of Ireland, came to BankAmerica in 1992 via its merger with Security Pacific Corp. At the time, he was running SecPac's California branch network. After the combination, he was given control of the combined banks' California operations.

A source who said he discussed the change with Mr. McGee, and who asked not to be named, said Mr. McGee was at first concerned about how the change in assignments would be perceived.

But Mr. McGee apparently was told by Mr. Coulter that a stint in operations and purchasing would help his resume by giving him valuable back office and national management experience.

"Liam has been a line guy all his career," the source said. "This is an opportunity to run another side of the financial statement."

The source added that Mr. Coulter was smart to put one of his most highly regarded executives in charge of a division that employs 8,000 and manages one of the company's biggest cost centers.

Even though the change is being viewed as positive, people who know Mr. McGee said they hoped for his sake that it doesn't last too long.

"I would hope that it's not a long-term assignment," said an executive recruiter who knows Mr. McGee. "He would go batty. He's very much an externally focused, client-service guy."

In another change that took effect July 9, group executive vice president Daniel P. Riley, 44, switched from head of the support services division to head of global payment services, a cash management unit that ranks as the largest at any U.S. bank.

The move was prompted by the July 16 resignation of Group Executive Vice President Larry McNabb, 47.

Mr. McNabb had also been a rising star at BankAmerica. He managed the Security Pacific merger integration, then ran the company's Texas bank subsidiary before switching to head of global payments in January 1995.

An associate of Mr. McNabb's, who also asked not to be named, said he is well-regarded and that his departure is seen as a loss. But the source added that Mr. McNabb may have been at least partially motivated by frustration with internal politics and a desire to cash in on the BankAmerica stock he has accumulated during his 11 years of tenure.

Speaking via a cellular phone from a Lake Tahoe golf course, Mr. McNabb said his goal is to take six months off to work on his golf game, exercise more, and spend more time with his wife of 28 years.

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