It may be the ultimate in name-dropping.

Always on the look-out for an edge in an increasingly competitive environment, banking companies nationwide are hiring well-known names from outside the industry to help build new customer relationships.

Politicians and business leaders are among the celebrities-turned- bankers.

A lack of previous banking experience means little; what counts is the ability of the big names to rub shoulders and shake hands with corporate chieftains, the wealthy, and the influential.

"Now that we have 65% of the assets in the industry controlled by the 35 largest banks, it's become important to have an awareness, a brand image outside your local market," said Anthony R. Davis, an analyst at Dillon Reed. "Most of these companies are pushing national business, and having highly visible people is part of that."

Take for instance NationsBank Corp.'s recent hiring of William "Billy" Porter Payne, who garnered international fame as the chief executive officer of the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games in 1996.

The $239 billion-asset banking company brought Mr. Payne aboard in February as vice chairman. But the 49-year-old Mr. Payne's role is primarily that of rainmaker.

With no direct oversight of any banking operations, Mr. Payne's job description is simple: Turn the corporate relationships he forged while gathering $1.7 billion in Olympic sponsorship deals into new business for NationsBank.

At NationsBank, Mr. Payne meets regularly with business groups and works on marketing and business development strategies, company officials said. It's too soon to discuss how it's working out, they said.

But observers said Mr. Payne is a plus for the banking company.

"I think it's an opportunistic hire. Billy has worldwide recognition," said John L. Allen, managing partner of the financial services division of Heidrick & Struggles executive search firm. "They can use his name from a marketing point of view to reinforce leadership."

Mr. Allen said banking companies have much to gain and little to lose by enlisting leaders outside the industry to help draw business.

San Francisco-based Bank-America Corp. doesn't want anyone to forget that it has recruited a big name of its own.

Two years ago, it hired Kathleen Brown, daughter and sister of California governors and herself a former state treasurer.

The $251 billion-asset banking company still proudly attaches Ms. Brown's treasurer's title to her name in press releases.

After hiring Ms. Brown as a senior vice president in the investment management and private banking group, the company promoted her in March. As an executive vice president, Ms. Brown is managing director of sales and business development for Bank of America's wealth management group.

She also is leading an initiative designed to strengthen business relationships with women.

Her boss, group executive vice president Alexander M. Anderson, said Ms. Brown is a key member of the group's senior management team.

Mr. Anderson said Ms. Brown has been very effective in representing the bank at numerous forums around the country where she has made presentations about the company's products and services.

"Kathleen has been singularly successful in managing our business development activities," said Mr. Anderson.

Pittsburgh-based PNC Bank Corp. is also capitalizing on political celebrity. It hired former Kentucky Gov. Edward T. Breathitt as a paid chairman of the advisory board of PNC's "Bluegrass" operations in Lexington, Ky.

Mr. Breathitt handles business development and community relations responsibilities and is turning into a strong resource for the bank, a company spokesman said.

Not to be outdone, J.P. Morgan & Co. grabbed a big gun this year when it hired former U.S. Sen. Bill Bradley. Mr. Bradley is a senior adviser to the banking company, a spokesman said.

The well-known politician and former professional basketball player also is vice chairman of Morgan's international council. This body is made up of political and business leaders who advise the company regularly on international concerns and matters of economic policy.

Subscribe Now

Access to authoritative analysis and perspective and our data-driven report series.

14-Day Free Trial

No credit card required. Complete access to articles, breaking news and industry data.