After 24 years working at Shawmut National Corp., Paul Dunn found himself in a precarious state last December.

Fleet Financial Group Inc. was acquiring his company, and he was one of the Shawmut executive vice presidents who would receive a severance package but no job in the merged institution.

Faced with the prospect of moving his family to another city if he ever expected a comparable position with another bank, Mr. Dunn decided to stay put and run a small bank in his community.

The decision to settle in at a local community bank is being played out by more and more displaced high-ranking executives from large institutions.

Executives who made the transition say the experience can be both rewarding and frustrating. Bankers who are used to a wealth of resources and support staffs often find themselves typing their own letters and fixing the fax machine.

In February, Mr. Dunn took a job as president and chief executive of the Bank of South Windsor, a $135 million-asset bank near Hartford, Conn.

Mr. Dunn is combining the skills he developed at Shawmut, which included being a bank president, overseeing branch banking, small business lending, and mortgage banking.

Though he's clearly a small-bank convert - espousing the creed of personal service at his bank - he acknowledges that there are frustrations. "I have more ideas and more desire to change than I have resources," he said.

Michael Bauer had a different experience. He was working at the $2 billion-asset Davenport Bank and Trust Co. in Iowa when Minneapolis-based Norwest Corp. took it over in December 1991. Mr. Bauer was promoted to president of Norwest's Davenport bank, a job he quit after one year.

"Some people's personalities are better suited for a big environment," Mr. Bauer said. But after working for the same community bank for more than 20 years, Mr. Bauer decided he wanted to work at a small company, so he started his own.

Nearly three years later his company, Quad City Holdings of Bettendorf, Iowa, $130 million in assets.

Working at a small institution - his employs only 60 people - can be demanding since, Mr. Bauers says. The payoff, he says, is autonomy and authority he didn't have at Norwest. "I was a president of a company and I couldn't even approve a credit card application."

Not all executives jump from large bank to small bank - like a big ship to a lifeboat - because of mergers.

One day it dawned on J. Michael Kapp, a senior vice president at Wachovia Corp. in Columbia, S.C., that he might never make the kind of impact he'd like at a company with 17,000 people. "I remember thinking, 'No matter what the hell I do here, it's not going to make a hill of beans.'"

So three years ago Mr. Kapp literally walked across the street to take a new job as president and chief executive of Bank of Columbia, a unit of Comsouth Bankshares.

Overseeing 25 people in a $68 million-asset bank is a far cry from managing 300 for Wachovia, one of the most profitable banks in the Southeast. But Mr. Kapp has no regrets. He's done what a number of other senior-level executives at large banks have probably at least thought of doing: go from a big, bureaucratic institution to a small, entrepreneurial company.

With the pace of consolidation quickening in the last several years, Mr. Kapp says he's actually more in control of his own destiny running a once-troubled community bank. "At a big bank you're kind of a cog in the wheel," he said.

But Neal F. Finnegan, chief executive of $2 billion-asset UST Corp. in Boston, says job satisfaction isn't measured by company size.

"I've worked for small, medium, and large companies," he says, and satisfaction is "much more about whether you can take on the challenge."

Mr. Finnegan, 58, left an executive vice presidency at Bankers Trust New York Corp. to take over at UST.

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