In the investment clearing business, a firm's fortune is tied to the clients it keeps.

BHC Financial is in an intense struggle to hold on to its remaining clients - the bulk of which are banks - and quickly make up for lost business by diversifying into other areas.

Last Friday, BHC, the Philadelphia-based clearing firm that provides brokerage accounting and back-office services, confirmed it will be dropped by Chase Manhattan Corp. this summer.

Chase was a plum contract for BHC, which expected to profit from the bank's expected increases in investment sales volume resulting from the merger with Chemical Banking Corp.

Another big BHC client, Norwest Corp., confirmed that it is considering clearing its own investment transactions, according John S. McCune, head of the banking company's brokerage.

That news comes a month after Citicorp and First Chicago NBD Corp. each told BHC they would be terminating their arrangements with the firm. The end of those two contracts could result in a revenue loss of more than $17 million, or 26% of BHC's 1995 total. The Chase account was valued more for its potential and will have little impact on BHC revenues, experts say.

BHC is hardly alone. Many other investment services companies also are struggling to cope with business losses that occur when banks are merged or acquired, or when they simply outgrow the need for outside investment services.

National Financial was booted out of First Fidelity Bancorp. and Shawmut Corp., when those two banking companies were acquired recently. And rival clearing firm Pershing, a unit of Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette, was dropped by Firstar Corp. last year.

"There is no doubt that this is a shrinking market," said Robert J. Middleton, a vice president at National Financial, the Boston-based clearing unit of Fidelity Investments.

Still, those firms have a more diversified client base and parent companies to help shoulder costs, which can be considerable.

"It's a volume-driven business, and they have a tremendous amount of overhead," said Mark Naber, a managing director at the Optima Group, a Fairfield, Conn. consulting firm.

Indeed, brokerage clearing firms are constantly having to upgrade their technology to keep pace with client demands for cheaper, faster processing of investment transactions and margin leading - the core business of clearing firms.

BHC derives 90% of its income from providing those services to banks. The company was formed in 1983 to support the brokerages of 20 banking companies, including Citicorp and Norwest. It expanded its services and became an independent, publicly traded company in 1991.

"In a sense BHC may have needed a slap in the face - hey, diversify - and if this doesn't give them the message I don't know what will," said Lynne M. Laughna, a bank analyst for Raymond James & Associates.

William T. Spane, BHC's chief executive, said the company is seeking new types of clients and has hired three new salespeople to drum up more work from nonbank broker-dealers, mutual fund companies, money management firms, and insurance companies.

"The prospects in the pipeline are many," he said in a telephone interview Friday.

Mr. Spane would not discuss Chase or Norwest, and said the firm would make a statement and release first-quarter earnings late this week.

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