When First Banks System Inc. agreed to buy First Interstate Bancorp. last November, a jubilant Patricia Stuhff handed out sunglasses at a downtown Los Angeles pep rally. "Our future's so bright we've gotta wear shades," exulted the events planner at First Interstate.

Not quite. Two months later, Ms. Stuhff was one of 7,200 First Interstate bankers to lose their jobs after Wells Fargo & Co. emerged as their bank's victorious suitor.

Many bankers are finding little to celebrate these days. Banks announced more than 54,000 job cuts last year, according to Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc., Chicago. Banks had handed out another 14,200 pink slips by May of this year.

Making matters worse, severance packages are becoming less generous. With the number of banking jobs dwindling by the day, nearly two-thirds of the bankers losing their jobs are finding they have to leave the profession altogether.

"You always think you're safe and secure if you do a good job," said Paul Menzel, the former president of Marshall & Ilsley's bank in Wauwatosa, Wis. When a 1994 acquisition reduced his position to branch manager, Mr. Menzel learned that was no longer true.

Many argue that the massive layoffs ultimately will produce a stronger, more competitive industry. But that idea is little comfort for the person "on the wrong side of 45 who joined the old world of banking," said John R. Stanek, a Chicago-based tracker of corporate trends.

Just ask John Guettler. The executive vice president for human resou rces at Bank IV in Wichita, Kansas, Mr. Guettler will be out of a job come September. Bank IV was recently acquired by Boatmen's Banchsares Inc. of St. Louis.

At age 50, Mr. Guettler - who chairs the American Bankers Association's executive committee on human resources - has no illusions that he will be snapped up by another bank. Instead, he plans to join a consulting firm, or, if need be, hang out a shingle of his own.

Mr. Menzel, who is 59, faced similarly bleak prospects when his job was downgraded. Pessimistic about securing a position elsewhere, Mr. Menzel decided to stick with what he knows: He started his own bank. He is now president and chief executive of Ridgestone Bank in Brookfield, Wis. After two years, he has yet to draw a salary.

Experts agree that when it comes to layoffs, older workers are more at risk than their younger counterparts. "It's discriminatory," said John Challenger, vice president of the Challenger firm. "Maybe it's a bit more prevalent today because of the whole change in the culture of the business."

Downsizing is not limited to the fiftysomething crowd - and neither is anxiety. More than half of 100,000 financial services employees - mostly bankers - recently surveyed by Mr. Stanek's firm, International Survey Research Corp., said they were worried about being laid off, up from about 25% in 1988. Moreover, half said they didn't believe performing well at work would help them keep their jobs.

There is little to indicate that bankers' outlooks will improve soon.

"In some ways, this is just the beginning of the consolidation of the industry," said Linnett Deily, the former chairwoman and chief executive of First Interstate Texas in Houston. Ms. Deily has been looking for a position since Wells won its fight for First Interstate in January.

Ms. Deily is not just pounding the pavement in banking circles. She's looking at the whole gamut of financial services firms - from insurance companies to brokerages, from mortgage companies to accounting firms. Such wide-ranging job searches are becoming increasingly common among displaced bankers keen to leave an industry in flux.

Only 39% of bankers who lost their jobs to downsizing in 1995 re-entered the industry, according to a survey by Manchester Partners International in Philadelphia. Another 25% joined other types of financial services firms. The average length of a displaced banker's job search: 17 weeks, according to Manchester.

Charles Ballard, a group vice president in Manchester's New York office, said that given a choice, bankers at merging or restructuring institutions should take their severance packages and run. Even those who survive an initial wave of job cuts are going to have to endure as many as two more rounds, he said. Pursuing other situations is their best bet.

Ms. Stuhff's severance agreement with Wells Fargo allows the former First Interstate events-planner to draw a salary from the bank through January 1998. The payments have enabled Ms. Stuhff to open her own events- planning business, using the skills she honed during her 23-year career at the bank.

But Ms. Stuhff is one of the lucky ones. Ongoing consolidation has taken its toll on severance pay, reports Challenger, Gray & Christmas. Severance has plunged 39% from a median of nearly 17 weeks pay back in 1993 to 12 weeks by the first quarter of 1996.

When the ax falls, it typically hits technical and operations people first, followed by branch employees, and those with jobs at the holding company level. Members of the top echelon of management are also at risk.

Leo Mullin, a former president of First Chicago Corp., is a case in point. Mr. Mullin maneuvered himself out of a job last year when he helped to strike a deal between First Chicago and NBD Corp. of Detroit. In exchange for basing the merged bank in their city, many top First Chicago executives, including Mr. Mullin, agreed to relinquish their positions to their counterparts at NBD.

"When consolidation occurs, it quite clearly can affect people at the very highest levels," Mr. Mullin said. He had been with First Chicago for 14 years.

Mr. Mullin, 53, landed on his feet. With a background in consulting and in railroads, Mr. Mullin sought a job outside of banking. In November, he was named vice chairman of Unicom Corp., the holding company for Commonwealth Edison Co., Chicago's electric company.

Mr. Mullin is not alone. Scores of displaced bankers are choosing not only to leave banking, but to flee from the financial services industry altogether.

The alumni of Bank IV provide a vivid example. Michael Shonka, formerly chief financial officer, is now chief financial officer of Cessna Aircraft Co.; William Rainey, who had been general counsel, is general counsel of Payless Shoe Source in Topeka, Kan.; and Brent Thompson, former senior vice president of marketing, moved his family to Denver so that he could join a seminary.

Not everyone looks so far afield. When Mark S. Kaufmann, 63, received an early retirement package from Chase Manhattan Corp. in May, he took his specialty at the bank - creating joint ventures and partnerships - and began his own consulting firm.

"In the old days, the skill was being a banker," said Mr. Kaufman, Chase's former director of corporate development. Today, "you need to find a specialty to pursue within banking. You have to be very good at something."

It's too early to know whether Mr. Kaufman and other displaced bankers will find success in their new careers. But at least one defector has no regrets about leaving the rapidly consolidating banking industry.

"It's simply not as enjoyable as it was in the past," said Joseph Spence, who is now a headhunter with Russell Reynolds Associates Inc. in Atlanta. "I support consolidation, but working in a $50 billion organization is not the same as working in a $1 billion organization."

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