Despite furious consolidation, financial services companies did more of the nation's senior-level hiring last year than in 1996, according to a survey.

In fact, the executive search firm Korn/Ferry International found, financial services organizations accounted for the biggest chunk of senior management hires, defined as those involving salaries of more than $100,000.

The figure rose to 17% in 1997, after five years around 15%. The industrial sector tied with health-care and pharmaceutical companies for second place, with 14% of the demand for executives last year.

"Financial services companies experienced an incredible year that accelerated the need for qualified executives to manage this growth and seek new opportunities," said Michael Boxberger, Korn/Ferry's president and chief executive.

Despite a wave of mergers in the financial services industry that has resulted in fewer jobs overall, especially for those at the highest levels, companies are hiring experts to run new business lines, said Parker Harrell, Korn/Ferry's managing director of financial services.

"If I had 20 skilled technology or capital markets people, I could stand on a corner and auction them off to banks in five minutes," Mr. Harrell said.

"As banks, insurance companies, and investment firms have gotten larger, the necessity for a different skill set has caused demand to explode," he added.

Banking consultant Charles B. Wendel agreed.

"A lot of banks and thrifts are really upgrading people by going outside of their normal turf to find executives with specialized or general management skills," he said. "This all adds to the churn factor."

Though he could not provide a breakdown, Mr. Harrell said the technology and securities areas are the hottest sectors in financial services recruitment. But these firms are not hiring many chief executives, he said.

Across U.S. industries, general managers, marketing executives, and chief financial officers topped the list of most-sought-after executives last year.

Korn/Ferry polled nearly 3,000 client firms around the world.

Outside the United States, demand for top financial services executives was also high. In Asia, 27% of the managers hired in 1997 were in financial services. That compared with 18% in advanced technology jobs, 16% in industrial companies, and 11% in consumer products.

Economic troubles in Asia played a significant role in the increase, Mr. Boxberger said.

"The road to recovery will be tough, but many companies, as we expected, are seeking the best global talent to help restructure their capital, dispose of unprofitable subsidiaries, and refocus on their core businesses," he said.

Merger-and-acquisition specialists, workout professionals, and venture capital specialists with international crisis management experience were in high demand, he added.

Financial services and industrial companies tied for executive demand in Europe, each with a 21% share of senior management hires.

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