Some are born into banking. Others have it thrust upon them. Still others stumble into it, almost by accident.

Whether they first toiled as management trainees or analysts, in the military or behind teller windows, people who have risen to the top of their institutions say they benefited from early challenges and adversity - and from the help of teachers along the way.

"The big lesson I learned was upper-level mentors should keep an eye on young talent and give them the breaks that (we) received," said John R. Cochran 3d, chairman, president, and chief executive officer of FirstMerit Corp., one of several CEOs asked by American Banker about their first full- time job experiences.

Similarly, Richard Tilghman of Crestar Financial Corp. said one of the good things about his job at a predecessor institution was that "senior management was readily available."

***

John B. McCoy's first employer was the U.S. Air Force. It was also where the current chairman and chief executive officer of Banc One Corp. got his first management experience.

After finishing an MBA at Stanford University in 1967, Mr. McCoy became commander of a 2,000-man squadron at the age of 24.

"I had a sheltered life in college," said the Williams College graduate. In the Air Force, "all these men were reporting to me, 90% of whom never went to college. It opened my eyes."

After completing three years in the service, Mr. McCoy started to look for jobs in New York and Chicago. His father was running City National Bank of Columbus at the time, but the younger Mr. McCoy didn't want to come home to Ohio and be handed a job by the Old Man.

In the end, the Old Man prevailed.

"He said I should think about coming back because 'if you want to be the greatest oil tanker (pilot) in the world, you still have to start at the bottom."'

Confident that he'd get no special treatment, Mr. McCoy began his first job at City National, an institution which later became part of Banc One. He started as a supervisor in the credit card reissuing department.

After his Air Force experience, the job turned out to be a perfect fit. "It taught me again how to motivate people," he said. Only this time, the squadron was a group of low-paid clerical workers.

***

David A. Daberko was a graduate student in finance at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland when he began to look for his first job.

The year was 1968, and the current chairman and chief executive of National City Corp. was deciding whether to pursue a career in public accounting or banking.

"Public accounting paid more, but I wasn't an accounting graduate," he said in a recent interview.

Since he figured he'd have better qualifications for a banking job, Mr. Daberko, then 23 years old, applied to the trainee programs of the two biggest banks in Cleveland: National City and Central National.

"I applied to both since they offered exposure to disciplines that appealed to me. The decision came down to who offered me the most. I am eternally grateful National City offered me $50 more per month," he said.

Mr. Daberko is proud that so early in his career he got to work as a credit analyst for Gene Carpenter, then the bank's chief credit officer.

"We weren't dealing with just numbers in the bank. He always told us that you really don't understand banking until you see the money flowing through the company. As soon as we learned one aspect of the bank, we started on another."

***

Crestar's Richard Tilghman also got his first career experience in the armed services.

He was a second lieutenant in the 82d Airborne, in the years before the United States became seriously involved in Vietnam.

"It was a marvelous education," the 55-year-old said recently. I learned "about leadership and how organizations work and don't work."

After the Army, Mr. Tilghman said, he "had no clue" what he wanted. But he was toying with the idea of working at the port in Hampton Roads and living in Virginia Beach.

A family friend suggested he talk to someone at Seaboard Citizen National Bank in Norfolk, a predecessor of Richmond-based Crestar, which has $18.3 billion of assets.

"I hadn't thought of becoming a banker, but I said what the hell." Seaboard offered him $500 more a year than he would have made as a customs clearing agent at the port, he said.

Mr. Tilghman, who began as a management trainee, was not impressed with his duties as a junior banker. "I became assistant cashier in 1968. But I had far more responsibilities as a lieutenant," he said.

Still, he stuck with it. "I knew banking was an interesting sport, even in those days. It certainly didn't take long before it became far more complicated and rewarding."

***

John R. Cochran 3d, CEO of $5.5 billion-asset FirstMerit in Akron, Ohio, fell in love with banking when he was a junior in college.

It was the mid-1960s, and Mr. Cochran was working part-time at Hawkeye State Bank in Iowa City, while attending the University of Iowa.

He had thought about working in corporate banking, commercial lending, or a large money-center bank. But after watching Hawkeye's president open the bank every morning and interact with all the customers, he decided, "I wanted to do what he did when I grew up."

His first job after college was with Norwest, which was then called Northwestern Bank. He became a management trainee.

"I was lucky to get into banking at the right time. Northwestern's head of personnel was interviewing students at the university, and I stopped him in the hallway. We started an interview on our way to the parking lot, so he sensed my interest in the company."

Mr. Cochran was a comer. He finished the bank's 24-month training program in 18 months, and at the same time centralized the bank's back-room operations.

"I maintained it, and structured it, and I was named cashier, also known as the head of operations," he said proudly.

Not surprisingly, the president of the bank, Bob Lange, took an early interest in Mr. Cochran, and that gave a boost to what was already a budding career.

***

Gerald Lipkin, chairman, president and CEO of Wayne, N.J.-based Valley National Bancorp, started his career as a bank examiner.

In 1963, Mr. Lipkin graduated from Rutgers University and went to work for the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency.

"I knew I wanted a career in finance," he said.

Naturally, the job gave him an extensive understanding of how banks work.

"I learned it was crucial for a bank to have an independent board made up of good business people who aren't afraid to voice their opinions, and that the bank must keep them fully informed," Mr. Lipkin said.

The 55-year-old banker said he received important advice from his placement officer at Rutgers.

"'When you start out, sharpen those pencils,"' the officer told him. "If the boss thinks you can't sharpen those pencils, and you fouled up by not doing a simple job, then how can you be trusted to do anything else?"

Mr. Lipkin said he used that first job to learn something every day. "I love my job today," he added, "but the job at the OCC was the second best job I ever had."

***

William J. Ryan, chairman, president, and CEO of Peoples Heritage Financial Group, Portland, Maine, originally wanted to be a professional baseball player.

But, he said, "My fastball just wasn't fast enough."

Graduating in 1965 from St. Francis College in Brooklyn, N.Y., Mr. Ryan started in a management training program at a Long Island office of Allstate Insurance Co.

"I wanted to do something that was in the financial industry, and Allstate was recruiting students from the college," he said.

"I tried hard and learned to be flexible. I knew my career as a professional baseball player was not happening."

Mr. Ryan, whose $4.5 billion-asset thrift is the only sizable independent left in Maine, said that "getting the job done no matter what gets you ahead in this business."

But he did not discount the value of luck. "Mine was meeting key people," he said. "When you're young, you want a quick answer for everything, but I learned that's not the way" it is.

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