In mid-December, Larry Connell sat down with with fellow managers at Atlantic Bancorp to review the 16-month-old bank's expense record.

By the time he'd finished, 17 employees had been laid off and eight vacant positions were cut.

"You act right away, and you don't tolerate inefficiences," says Mr. Connell, Atlantic's president. "That's instinctive at this point."

That way of doing things is a skill Mr. Connell honed over 13 years of work in turning around failing institutions in the thrift industry's trouble spots - the Southwest and New England.

Now, the 59-year-old New England native is relying on his experience to help Atlantic Bancorp grow successfully while avoiding the pitfalls that cost taxpayers money - and many of his colleagues their careers.

"We want to be the leading commercial bank in the state of Maine, and that means being the best, not necessarily the largest," he said. "We've come along fine. We've only been here a year, so we're just getting started."

So far, so good. Just 17 months after opening its doors, Atlantic, through two acquisitions and aggressive marketing, has grown into the fifth-largest institution in Maine, and the largest independent commercial bank in the state.

And that's translated into income. Whereas most start-ups lose money for the first three years, Atlantic made a profit after one, earning $689,000 in the nine months ended Sept. 30, 1995.

"I'm home now. I like being back in New England," Mr. Connell said. "It's going to take me a number of years to develop this company and I'm looking forward to doing it. It's a great time to be involved in a start- up.'

"He brings a great knowledge of the industry and a very hard-headed, realistic approach to meeting problems," said L. William Seidman, former chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., who met Mr. Connell in the late 1980s. "He represents perhaps the new kind of bank management which isn't tied down by all the problems of the past."

In fact, his past experiences, and honed skill at quick decision-making, are paying off now that Mr. Connell has the chance to run his own healthy shop.

For example, he saw - in Texas and New England - what happened to banks that didn't maintain basic lending standards. As a result, Atlantic has a credit review department that Mr. Connell said is larger and more formal than at most community banks.

"You have to put the checks in before you start making the loans," he said. "Otherwise you pay a higher price down the road. That's why we made the investment."

Mr. Connell also made sure Atlantic wouldn't be governed by uninformed directors, a major problem today among community banks. Instead, his board has a vested interest - collectively a 50% stake in the institution. As owners, they tend to be conservative in deciding bank policy, he said.

In a career spanning almost four decades, Mr. Connell has seen almost all aspects of management in the banking industry - at its best, and at its worst.

During his career, he has worked in both state and federal regulation, over both banks and credit unions, and has been a consultant to bankers, regulators, and even lawmakers. He's even refereed amateur boxing in Hartford, Conn., while supervising the state's banks, giving him contact with "regular people, as opposed to just bankers."

And as co-chairman of the private Shadow Financial Regulatory Committee since 1985, he's analyzed national policy on a range of bank issues, from the thrift industry crises to the current controversy over insurance premiums.

After starting out at the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency in 1958 and moving to general counsel at Hartford National Corp., he became Connecticut banking commissioner - a position he used to push interstate banking legislation through the statehouse over industry objections.

He also stirred bankers' ire by permitting a credit union to expand its membership base. That decision propelled him into the chairmanship of the National Credit Union Administration in 1977, where he drew a lawsuit from the American Bankers Association over his decision to allow credit unions to offer checking accounts.

In 1982, with Republicans in control of the White House, he launched his career as a troubleshooter, joining Washington Mutual Savings Bank in Seattle in a successful effort to pull that troubled, money-losing thrift off regulators' endangered list.

Other banks took notice and over the next eight years, Mr. Connell advised regulators and bankers, and even tried to rescue four Texas thrifts and one New Hampshire company from failure. All five closed, but Mr. Connell said his budget-cutting saved taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars.

That makes running a healthy bank a new experience for him. Starting with a shell company formed by a group of high-powered investors, Atlantic bought the entire Maine operation of Citicorp in September 1994, with six branches and $230 million in assets.

But 80% of Citibank's Maine portfolio was invested in home mortgages, and Mr. Connell wanted to build a commercial bank. He looked for other opportunities, and found KeyCorp, which was buying Casco Northern Bank from Bank of Boston.

KeyCorp was looking to divest some branches and Atlantic bought nine in June, bringing the bank's assets to $440 million. With the purchase came $100 million in commercial loans.

"He's a growth guy and they've got guys on the board that want to grow. Plus, they've got capital," said Gerard Cassidy, bank analyst at Hancock Institutional Equity Services. "It's not that often that you can combine those elements and deliver a product that's accepted, which is what they're doing so far."

Still, Mr. Seidman wonders if Mr. Connell is ready for good times.

"He has been an excellent operator, particularly in troubled situations," Mr. Seidman said. "He might get bored at a bank that's doing too well."

Subscribe Now

Access to authoritative analysis and perspective and our data-driven report series.

14-Day Free Trial

No credit card required. Complete access to articles, breaking news and industry data.