H.N. "Nat" Padget is not a risk-taker by nature.

In fact throughout 20 years in banking he has specialized in helping banks minimize risk, first as a federal bank examiner and then in a progression of jobs managing lending practices.

But last month Mr. Padget, 41, took one of the riskiest moves of his career: He resigned as executive vice president of Milton National Bank in Atlanta.

The decision cost him sleepless nights. He was making a six-figure income at a healthy, growing company- and Mr. Padget has two young sons and a wife whose battle with cancer makes health insurance a necessity.

But he was dissatisfied with the prospect of forever following someone else's strategic moves.

"I didn't want to wake up and be 50 someday, and be a No. 2, and find out I'll never be what I've always aspired to be-a CEO," Mr. Padget said in a recent interview.

So he took the bull by the horns and decided to start his own bank.

Next spring, if all goes well, Mr. Padget will open Chattahoochee National Bank in Atlanta's fast-growing northern suburbs. An Atlanta bank consulting firm, T. Stephen Johnson & Associates Inc., is helping out. A 16-member board has been selected, and regulatory approval has been applied for. Private investors have committed about $2 million in start-up money, and an initial public offering to raise about $10 million is planned for sometime in January.

"I still wake up in the middle of the night wondering if this is the right thing to do," Mr. Padget said. "But the way I look at it, I have no other choice but to succeed."

Like Mr. Padget, scores of young bankers are wrestling with questions about the future of their careers, according to bank recruiters and consultants. As consolidation rearranges the industry, more and more executives are looking for opportunities to strike out on their own at smaller institutions.

More than ever before, career planning is crucial, experts say.

Dennis W. Burnette of the executive recruiting firm Sanford Rose Associates, said Mr. Padget is taking exactly the type of career initiative needed in today's market. Young bankers must be willing to follow their own star, even if it means changing companies and taking other risks, he said.

"In today's environment bankers need to manage their careers closely," Mr. Burnette said. "They have to look out for where their next opportunity is going to be.

"It used to be you could stay in one spot 10 years or more. That time line is shrinking for a lot of people."

Stephen Johnson, who is helping Mr. Padget start Chattahoochee National, agreed. He said he is regularly approached by bank executives who want to start banks of their own.

He is now getting a particularly large volume of calls from managers at Barnett Banks Inc., he said; NationsBank Corp. is buying the Jacksonville, Fla., company.

Mr. Padget, meanwhile, is busy dealing with investors, securing a building, and pursuing regulatory approval.

"I'm probably not going to be excited like this about something ever again," he said. "This will be my last hurrah in banking."

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