John S. Reed tops a long list of big-name bankers to leave the field in recent months.

"It really is true. The whole industry has retired," Mr. Reed, 61, said in an interview. Apart from Bank of America Corp.'s Hugh McColl, "everybody has left," he said. "You've had a whole generation retire."

Two other high-profile executives, John B. McCoy of Bank One Corp. and Edward E. Crutchfield Jr. of First Union Corp., retired under pressure caused by merger miscues - and in Mr. Crutchfield's case a cancer diagnosis.

Lung cancer claimed former Chase Manhattan Corp. chairman and CEO Thomas G. Labrecque, who died Oct. 16 at age 62, while Walter V. Shipley officially ended his 43-year career on Jan. 1, 2000, by stepping down as Chase's chairman.

Thomas H. O'Brien, who joined PNC Bank Corp. in 1962 and ran it for 15 years, retired May 1. Other CEOs sidelined: Verne G. Istock of Bank One, Roger Fitzsimmons of Firstar Corp., and E.B. "Bud" Robinson Jr. of Deposit Guaranty Corp.

Two headliners still holding titles with banking companies but effectively nudged aside by mergers are Sandy Warner, the head of J.P. Morgan & Co., who sold it to Chase and is said to be looking for a job in the Bush administration; and Paul Hazen, who ran Wells Fargo & Co. until its merger with Norwest Corp.

A common reaction from these powerful bankers: Retirement is not nearly as awful as they had feared.

"If I thought about retirement, it was with dread," said Mr. Crutchfield, who had been president of First Union since 1973 and CEO for 15 years. "What a silly thought. It's been a ball."

Mr. McCoy said: "You worry, 'Is anybody going to call you?' But I got a lot of calls. I feel better than I ever thought I would have." Following in his father's footsteps, Mr. McCoy was Bank One's CEO from 1973 through 2000. "I loved every minute of it. But now I'm onto the next part of my life, and I love every day."

These bankers said they are not concerned about short-term reaction to the mergers they engineered.

"Do I wish the stock was $100? Yeah, but I think you've got to look over the valley on these things," said Mr. Crutchfield, 59. "What the outside world doesn't know is what would happen if the deal hadn't been done."

Asked if, in hindsight, slower growth might have been better, Mr. McCoy, 57, was adamant about the soundness of his deals.

"There isn't a deal that I wouldn't redo if I could," he said. "You cannot survive standing still, and the nature of our business is changing so rapidly you have to build a national franchise. "In the long run, they will forget about the blip, and what they'll look at is how the company has done."

These industry titans advised bankers to have a similar long-term focus.

Referring to the obsession with meeting quarterly earnings targets as the "miss-a-penny, make-a-penny mess," Mr. Crutchfield urged bankers - and their boards - to "keep your eyes on the stars and your feet on the ground.

"Don't get distracted by this highly short-term-focused market," he said. "You simply cannot run a growing business that way."

As for mergers, these bankers agreed that the key to a successful merger is simple.

"The top people have got to be simpatico," Mr. Crutchfield said. "They've got to get along. That human factor is the biggest single factor, given the numbers make sense. There is not a close second."

Mr. Istock agreed, and added that he regrets that the top managers at Bank One and First Chicago NBD Corp. were unable to work together after the companies merged in 1998. "That's what the role of management is, and we just didn't get that job done," he said.

The 60-year-old Mr. Istock, who retired in September, began his banking career in 1963 with National Bank of Detroit, which merged in 1995 with First Chicago. After Mr. McCoy retired from Bank One in December 1999, Mr. Istock was acting CEO until Jamie Dimon was hired in March.

And while these legends steadfastly defend the deals they put together, they agreed that the bigger a bank gets, the less fun it is to run.

Mr. Crutchfield joined First Union when it had $500 million of assets. Today it has $250 billion. "I enjoyed the building process and the entrepreneurial aspects much more than the administration of a huge company," he said.

Can a bank be too big?

"Good question - I don't know," Mr. Crutchfield said. "There is no question that size brings benefits. But do they outweigh the downside of being slow, bureaucratic? I'm not sure."

But Mr. Istock, who started with a $2 billion-asset company that grew to $200 billion, said a bank cannot get too big. "The basics are pretty much the same; the decimal points are just in a different spot."

The executives say running a large bank is more stressful than they realized.

"When you're the CEO . you have to live that company, breathe that company, die that company," Mr. McCoy said. "I didn't appreciate how hard I was working because I loved it."

Mr. Crutchfield's life has also changed considerably. He finished chemotherapy to treat his lymphoma in August. He has no plans to be a banker again. "I am retired," he said. "I want to put something back into a world that has been awfully good to me."

To that end, he is raising capital for the Nature Conservancy; heads the board of Davidson College, just outside his hometown of Charlotte, N.C.; and has set up the Crutchfield Family Foundation to help underprivileged kids.

Asked who they admire, retired bankers pointed to Mr. Shipley and Mr. Labrecque for their artful execution of the industry's earliest blockbuster - the combination of Chase and Chemical. "Tom was willing to play the #2," Mr. Istock said. "Those guys made it work."

Mr. Crutchfield also singled out Mr. McColl. Though intense rivals, the two men shared a common villain. "We spent most of our careers, frankly getting tired of the New York banks looking down on us," Mr. Crutchfield said.

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