Robert L. Clarke finds it amusing that community bankers once considered him the enemy.

When Mr. Clarke was comptroller of the currency, some community bankers believed he favored the national banks he regulated.

Yet today Mr. Clarke is part-owner of Community Bank, a $50 million- asset, state-chartered bank here in his adopted hometown.

"You can go back to speeches that I gave when I was with the government, and without fail I would say that community banks play a significant role," Mr. Clarke says today, still puzzled as to why bankers didn't believe him then. "Now surely they believe me because I've put my money where my mouth is."

Mr. Clarke admits that if he were to charter a new bank he would go with a national charter. Yet he's so convinced that the future is bright for community banks-even state-chartered ones-that he and some friends spent $3.75 million to buy El Pueblo State Bank in Espanola, N.M., in 1994. The renamed Community Bank has since opened a branch in Santa Fe, where Mr. Clarke has owned a second home since 1982.

"In some segments, banking has become a commodity business where people don't really care if they talk to a human being or not," said Mr. Clarke, explaining his desire to own a community bank. "But for the small- businessperson or the individual who has financial resources, they need a banker who understands their business or who will make the time to understand their business and who will pay attention to them when they need help."

It's not Mr. Clarke's first community bank investment, either. He began investing in Texas community banks in 1969 and continued doing so until 1985 when he became comptroller and had to sell his holdings.

His tenure at the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency was colorful. He arrived at the beginning of the savings and loan crisis and left in the middle of the so-called "credit crunch." In between, a deep recession caused bank failures at a rate of 200 a year, leaving the Houston banking lawyer little time to accomplish his goal of improving the bank examination process.

"It was hard to change a lot because we were so busy fighting fires and trying to keep the system from collapsing in a heap," Mr. Clarke said.

Those fires eventually cost Mr. Clarke his job.

While the banking industry generally supported Mr. Clarke's nomination for a second term, Senate Banking Committee Democrats-particularly then- chairman Donald W. Riegle of Michigan-did not. Among other things, then- Sen. Riegle blamed Mr. Clarke and his policies for a wave of bank failures, including the celebrated collapse of Bank of New England Corp.

The committee denied Mr. Clarke confirmation in late 1991, and he stepped down in February 1992.

Mr. Clarke said he misses Washington at times. In his six years at the OCC, he said, there wasn't a day when he didn't wake up looking forward to going to the office. "Except," he added quickly, "on the days when I knew I had a hearing before Congress."

But he also enjoys the private sector. After leaving the OCC, Mr. Clarke returned to Bracewell & Patterson, the Houston law firm where he had practiced for 17 years. His experience at the OCC opened up a whole new practice for him: advising bank regulators in Eastern Europe after the Communist regimes there collapsed.

Today, Mr. Clarke counts the National Bank of Poland and similar central banks in Latvia and Hungary among his clients. "I haven't had much trouble staying employed," he joked.

Or investing his money.

When he's not working on banking law matters, Mr. Clarke is likely to be scouting for manufacturing firms that need financing. Most recently, he and a group of investors created a $40 million private equity fund that invests in companies making items ranging from lawn care equipment to rope hammocks.

As part-owner of Community Bank, Mr. Clarke said, he hasn't thought much about being on the other side of the table from examiners. Examinations are a fact of life, he said, and "as long as you maintain relationships, it's not a difficult process.

"Supervisors are human beings, too, and they like to be treated that way," he said.

Day-to-day management of Community Bank is left to chairman and chief executive officer James A. Kruger. A 16%-owner and director of the bank's holding company, Mr. Clarke said his job at Community Bank is to offer advice and "stay out of the way."

But Mr. Kruger said Mr. Clarke is being modest. He noted that the former regulator had flipped pancakes at a Community Bank-sponsored breakfast in July and often drops in on Santa Fe merchants and urges them to bring their banking business to Community Bank.

"It's one of the things I appreciate most about Bob," said Mr. Kruger. "He does an excellent job at making referrals to potential customers."

Does it matter to customers that one of the bank's owners is the former comptroller of the currency?

"I don't think so," said Mr. Kruger. "When we're pitching bigger business, I might mention it. But most people who don't have any other relationship with a bank other than being a customer really don't understand what the comptroller does."

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