In a year when the fixed-income world was rocked by highprofile failures like Orange County's as well as an unprecedented stream of rate hikes, many financiers assumed a low profile.

Not Morris W. Offit.

"When your name is on the door, you can't hide," the 58-year-old banker said. "This is all by design. Our clients feel they are part of a family."

Mr. Offit is the highly visible chairman and chief executive officer of Offitbank, a 4#1/2-year-old, privately held New York City trust bank with $6 billion in fixed-income assets under management.

After passing the two receptionists in Offitbank's midtown Manhattan office, a visitor can easily spot Mr. Offit, whose desk is in the line of sight from the reception area.

"The searing, dramatic changes in 1994 made it a defining crucible year," he said. And Offitbank's 350 high-net-worth clients had as much access as they wanted to the bank's founder and 30% owner.

Communication and a high level of service were particularly important in 1994. "You never know a firm's character when everything is going well," Mr. Offit said, "but it becomes clearer when times get tougher."

Assets under management remained flat from yearend 1993 to yearend 1994. However, in the first two months of this year, new business flow is annualizing at over 15%, suggesting that the bank strengthened its relationships.

Now, it plans to enter the trust and stock businesses for the affluent, a clientele Mr. Offit feels is the most underserved by banks.

As a limited partnership trust bank, Offitbank does not take deposits, but manages its assets through fixed-income investment. The bank also runs mutual funds that require a minimum investment of $250,000.

While Mr. Offit said that it's difficult to predict municipal defaults like Orange County's, banks can take some action to hedge against serious problems.

"You learn from something like Orange County that you have to be independent of other people's judgment," said Mr. Offit. "You have to do your own independent homework."

Mr. Offit said there were lessons to be learned from the 1994 market, but warned against being overly cautious.

"If you learn too many lessons, you can be handcuffed," said Mr. Offit. "We learned not to lose our own sense of judgment."

Mr. Offit relies on almost 35 years of experience.

He began his career in the trust business with a position at Mercantile Safe Deposit and Trust Company in his native Baltimore. Mr. Offit also received his bachelor's degree from Johns Hopkins University and is now chairman of the Baltimore-based institution's board of trustees.

After eight years at Mercantile, Mr. Offit left to head the stock research department at Salomon Brothers Inc. - where he rose through the ranks to become partner in charge of sales.

"The little kid from Baltimore wanted to know just how good he really was, so he came to New York," he recalled.

In 1983, Mr. Offit followed his entrepreneurial instincts and returned to the buy side as founder of an investment advisory firm. Seven years later, he transformed that business into a bank.

Offitbank has grown from a mere $2 billion in assets under management in 1984. The bank has also bucked the downsizing trend, growing to 100 employees from 41 in 1990.

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