Fleet Financial Group is vowing to remain a big force in home lending despite persistent defections from its mortgage unit.

In an interview Wednesday, vice chairman Michael R. Zucchini said the Boston-based banking company is fully committed to its Fleet Mortgage Group subsidiary. And he insisted that Fleet is not considering selling the unit.

"Looking out over a four- or five-year period of time, we're optimistic," Mr. Zucchini said.

Mr. Zucchini spoke with American Banker one day after Fleet Mortgage's chief executive officer of four months, Richard A. Mirro, announced that he is leaving the Columbia, S.C., operation at yearend.

Mr. Mirro, who is to become the No. 2 mortgage executive at Dime Bancorp, is the sixth high-ranking Fleet Mortgage executive to leave in the past year.

"Obviously, we would prefer to see more stability in the senior management level," Mr. Zucchini said. But he expressed confidence that a strong new executive team is taking shape.

Mr. Zucchini said a new CEO hasn't been selected, and wouldn't say how long it will take to find one. He also said that the post of president - held from July through October by Kevin D. Race, who jumped to HomeSide Lending - has been eliminated.

But he noted that Fleet has filled several jobs that have opened up in recent months. For instance, Peter F. Makowiecki, formerly the mortgage group's controller, has been promoted to chief financial officer. And three people are handling the position of production chief, a position that Phillip W. Bracken vacated in June after only a few weeks on the job. Mr. Bracken is now at Norwest Mortgage Inc.

Mr. Zucchini also said Fleet plans to unveil a new automated point-of- origination system in February. The mortgage company has been criticized for failing to keep pace with its peers in technology investments.

"We certainly didn't get there first," Mr. Zucchini conceded. But, he added, "we think it will be one of best systems in the industry."

Still, some industry observers have their doubts about Fleet's commitment to the mortgage business. One Wall Street dealer familiar with the company said that Fleet Mortgage has always been viewed as the "orphan child" at Fleet Financial.

But others said Fleet Mortgage appears to be in the business for the long haul. Gerry Risi, senior vice president at Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based CoreStates Capital Markets, noted that the company is bidding on loan servicing packages. "Why commit those types of dollars if you're looking to leave the business?" he said.

Gerard Cassidy, an analyst for Hancock Institutional Equity Services, said that while he doesn't see any signs of a sale, Fleet's mortgage subsidiary has clearly been struggling.

"The mortgage company is not achieving the levels of profit that one would like to see," Mr. Cassidy said, adding that it is no secret that Fleet is looking to sell or cut back on its lower-return businesses.

In a brief interview Wednesday, Mr. Mirro reiterated he will remain with Fleet until the end of the year and said his primary emphasis will be finalizing the unit's business plan for 1997.

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