Executive headhunter L. Parker Harrel Jr. has been seen the world of bank opportunities turn topsy-turvy.

Mr. Harrell is a managing vice president at the Korn/ferry International office in Washington. Only for years ago, he devoted most of his efforts to stalking candidates for $75,000-a-year jobs at fast-growing banks and thrifts.

He was placing applicants in jobs at the middle-management level - or higher - with occasional opportunities to recruit a chief executive officer for a new bank.

Today, though, most banks and thrifts are shrinking. Mr. Harrell said he occasionally bags a middle manager for a healthy regional bank. But, most often, he is beating the bushes for institutions that needs a CEO "to try to get them out of a ditch."

Shift from Placement to Displacement

Mr. Harrell, 54 is a former banker who joined the global executive recruiting firm 18 years ago as a financial specialist. Looking back a the past years, he noted: "All of the mid-to upper-management hiring stopped."

Back in 1987, Citicorp and Chase Manhattan Corp. were Korn/Ferry's biggest customers for mid-level people, he recalls. These days, the recruiter does not get any recruiting assignments for Citicorp or Chase.

Along with pulling in their reins on hiring, Mr. Harrell said, financial institutions have slashed many positions that were created in the 1980s - during the "glory years of banks and thrifts."

As a consequence, Mr. Harrell is now on the receiving end of "a tremendous number of resumes from displaced bankers."

Although the trend has left Mr. Harrell with fewer placement opportunities, the assignments he gets carry higher stakes and bring bigger billings.

Mr. Harrell has recruited 25 chief executives in the past five years, including 17 for banks in dire straits. In 1991 he placed six CEOs at banks with assets of more than $2 billion.

Chief financial officers and credit policy officers are also in demand, he said.

Regulators are the indirect source of most of Mr. Harrell's new business finding CEOs for troubled banks.

In some cases, federal agencies had ordered these banks to replace their top management with outsiders. Or, the banks had anticipated that regulators would soon be issuing such orders.

Beating the Regulatory Heat

Other banks desired CEOs better equipped to weather the current regulatory heat.

Leery of penalties and lawsuits, Mr. Harrell said bank boards are reviewing their management lineup and asking: "Can old Joe, who has been there 20 years, handle the new impact?"

In these cases, banks are bypassing the type of leader who has a longstanding record at one solid company.

Rather, they need someone who "has turned an institution around," Mr. Harrell said.

"This is no time for beginners. What we look for is someone who has been through the meat grinder."

Dimmer Days for Financial Specialists

Mr. Harrell advises younger headhunters not to become financial specialists.

Comment on a recent report in The Wall Street Journal that demand for executive hiring was up 22% in first-quarter 1992, Mr. Harrel said: "I can guarantee that it is not up in banking."

This reaction is verified by the number of recruiters who are straying from financial services and looking toward high technology and health care, Mr. Harrell said. "If I were 40 years old and in the niche business, I [too] would go somewhere else."

Ms. Pichler writes for the Medil New Service.

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