When Chase Manhattan Corp. agreed last month to buy Robert Fleming Holdings Ltd., the U.S. banking company flew a team of senior executives to London to celebrate.

Brian O'Neill, chairman of Chase's Latin American operations, was not one of the group. Instead he immediately set off in another direction, flying southward to meet the Latin specialists staffing Fleming offices in Mexico City, Lima, Rio de Janeiro, and Bogota. Fleming has 150 or so of these specialists, including some in New York.

For Chase, investment banking in Latin America is a significant component of its effort to establish itself as a global financial powerhouse with a comprehensive range of services for big corporate clients. Five years after its entry into the investment banking business in Latin America, it is reaping rewards that Mr. O'Neill says are already reflecting the addition of the Fleming team.

"They have a small but well regarded team in Latin America and a solid network of offices," says Mr. O'Neill. "That dovetailed very nicely with our own operations, and we're already starting to get the benefits."

Rankings just released by Thomson Financial Securities Data credited Chase with advising on nearly $4 billion of Latin mergers and acquisitions in the first quarter, making it the third-biggest player in the region after Morgan Stanley Dean Witter and Goldman, Sachs & Co.

That's almost as much as Chase handled in Latin America all of last year and nearly twice its $2.4 billion worth of deals in 1998. Among some recent deals Chase handled: an Argentine investment consortium's acquisition of Swift Armour S.A., the local subsidiary of Illinois-based meal and poultry company Armour Swift-Eckrich Inc. The banking company also advised on Grupo Mexico's $2.25 billion acquisition of Asarco Inc., the New York metals and mining company, as well as on the joint acquisition by Newark, N.J.-based PSEG and Sempra Energy of a 90% stake in Chilquinta Energia S.A., a Chilean energy company.

All the business has pushed Chase ahead of some traditional powerhouses in Latin America. J.P. Morgan & Co was ranked sixth in the first quarter, with $1.4 billion of deals, and Citigroup's Salomon Smith Barney unit was ranked seventh, with $708 million.

J.P. Morgan officials were not available to comment. Adolfo Rios, head of Latin American mergers and acquisitions at Salomon Smith Barney observed that first-quarter rankings were distorted by some unusually large individual deals.

"We are reinforcing our position in Latin American M&A, and what we care about are annual, not quarterly, results," Mr. Rios said. Given transactions the company has in the pipeline and expects to conclude soon, he added, "we are going to wind up in a very good position by yearend."

Analysts, though agreeing that one quarter does not make a trend, said they see signs that Chase is no longer an also-ran. Raphael Soifer of Soifer Consulting said that more time is needed to assess Chase's place in the business. "That said," he added, "Chase has grown dramatically."

Chase does not disclose how much it is making either from M&A or other investment banking activities. But Mr. O'Neill said Latin America is proving to be an important source of business.

"In 1999, Latin America for the first time passed Asia as a region for inbound foreign investment," says Mr. O'Neill. "Multinationals are now both buyers and sellers in Latin America, and M&A has become a sustainable, fee-generating business for Chase."

Chase has also been hiring top specialists in emerging-market securities, such as Joyce Chang in New York, and buying investment banking operations such as Brazil's Banco Patrimonio last year.

"They've always had an extremely strong presence in the corporate banking market in Latin America, and they've been working to build this business for years," said Lawrence Cohn, a banking analyst at Ryan, Beck & Co.

"Chase is leveraging its relationships and is doing what it ought to be doing," he said.

Alongside the plunge into Latin American M&A, Chase is moving deeper into local capital markets. Last year, for example, it lead-managed the sale of a $315 million, three-year, World Bank bond, the first such issue denominated in Mexican currency. It also led a $315 million, peso-denominated issue for Ford Credit Mexico, the local financing unit of Ford Motor Co. This year, Mr. O'Neill predicts, Chase will arrange more than 20 such bond issues for Mexican corporations.

In Brazil, Chase arranged an $85 million, five-year, floating-rate note for Industrias Klabin de Papel E Celulose, a pulp and paper company, and a $175 million U.S. commercial paper program for Banco Itau S.A., one of Brazil's biggest privately owned banks.

"We're starting to see domestic bond markets developing in Latin America," Mr. O'Neill says, "growing local demand for local paper from pension funds and investors, and less dependence on external financing."

Mr. O'Neill, who joined Chase in 1977, is one of the few veterans remaining from the 10-year-long Latin American debt rescheduling. He has become something like the dean of Latin banking in New York since the recent resignation of Morgan vice chairman Roberto Mendoza. He takes no small satisfaction from the dramatic reversal of circumstances in the region and the steady growth in Latin business.

He also predicts that Chase's business in Latin America can only grow, given forecasts from the Washington-based Institute of International Finance that net private flows to the region will rise 50% this year, to $92 billion.

"Foreign direct investment in Latin America is being driven by modernization, regulatory and economic reforms, and globalization," Mr. O'Neill says. "We see nothing to halt this trend."

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