Never heard of Richard Spillenkothen? Neither have many other bankers, but he plays a huge role in the industry's regulation as the Federal Reserve's director of banking supervision.

After studiously avoiding publicity throughout his two decades at the Fed, Mr. Spillenkothen, 46, has recently begun stepping out of the shadow.

Central bank insiders say Mr. Spillenkothen had no choice: the Fed board's lone banker, former Shawmut National Corp. chairman John P. LaWare, retired last April and his replacement is a career economist.

"He's willing to take a more public role," said Thomas Hoenig, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City. "It is a combination of having gained experience, getting comfortable with the job, and being in a better position now."

Mr. Spillenkothen, however, denies he's seeking the spotlight. "There are two ways to do the job," he said. "One way to do it is to spend less time trying to be visible and more time trying to understand the issues."

Besides, he said with a smile, "one's life can be simpler if one doesn't worry about profiles."

Still, Mr. Spillenkothen is getting out more often, speaking on electronic banking in February, attending a March conference on foreign banking issues, and testifying Wednesday before the House Banking Committee.

Yet, in classic Fed tradition, Mr. Spillenkothen often speaks without saying much. For example, he proclaims the importance of a controversial plan to let banks use their own models to measure market risk, but shies away from any detailed opinions.

This much is clear: Mr. Spillenkothen is an avid supporter of using technology to better manage risk. He said he believes banks and supervisors are capable of handling any challenge posed by exotic new financial instruments.

He also said he believes that banks must take responsibility for their own safety and soundness. That means stress-testing their portfolios, using internal auditors, and operating computerized risk assessment models.

But on specifics - the nit-picky regulatory stuff that compliance depends upon - Mr. Spillenkothen defers to the Fed board, which he acknowledges must make the final choice on all supervisory initiatives.

"My job is to carry out the board's policy," he said. "That is exactly what I do. I try to develop options and solutions."

He has taken the lead on a few fronts. He's endorsed computerizing many aspects of bank evaluations to eliminate the clerical work that dominates examiners' time. This would free supervisors to look for management weaknesses, which pose a greater threat to the bank's health.

Mr. Spillenkothen also is heading the Fed's efforts to grapple with interstate banking. He has convened a task force of state regulators to resolve the supervisory problems of state-chartered banks branching across state borders. The task force must decide who will regulate out-of-state branches of state-chartered institutions, he said.

Solving this problem is crucial, he said. State banks won't branch if they have to deal with multiple state regulators. That will give national banks an enormous advantage, throwing the future of the dual banking system into doubt, he said.

Mr. Spillenkothen, a tall, thin man, started his banking career during the early 1970s in the management training program at First National Bank of Chicago. He moved to the Fed as a review examiner in 1976, becoming deputy associate director for supervision and regulation in 1985.

As the top regulator, Mr. Spillenkothen oversees the examination of 980 state banks, 6,019 holding companies, 277 foreign banks, and 76 Edge Act corporations. His domain includes all the safety-and-soundness rules, but excludes consumer protections and the Community Reinvestment Act.

He owes his rise to the top ranks of the Fed to Bill Taylor, the agency's legendary top regulator who left in 1991 to head the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. At the Fed, Mr. Taylor took Mr. Spillenkothen under his wing. The two men worked closely on risk-based capital issues, a hot topic during the banking crises of the late 1980s.

Mr. Taylor died 10 months after leaving the Fed, devastating Mr. Spillenkothen. "I was losing a mentor, a guide, and a good friend," he said. Not that Mr. Taylor is ever far from his mind. "One of the things I do when an issue comes up is think, 'How would Bill handle this?' " he said.

Replacing Mr. Taylor, who was widely admired and respected, was tough. Fed staffers privately criticized Mr. Spillenkothen as disorganized and unable to make decisions. Even regulators at the Fed's 12 reserve banks added their shots, complaining he didn't keep them informed. Outsiders, surprised by the choice, groused that Mr. Spillenkothen did not measure up to the standard Mr. Taylor set.

Mr. Spillenkothen freely admits to some early trouble. "I felt overwhelmed and moved by the scope and magnitude of some of the things I had to work on," he said. But, he said, that is normal for any new job.

Mr. Spillenkothen appears to have conquered his initial fears. He said he has "day-to-day" contact with the heads of supervision at the 12 reserve banks. "From time to time we have disagreements," he said. "That happens. But it is a very constructive relationship."

And he is clearly comfortable in his role. During an interview, he switched with ease from questions about his personal life to regulatory issues, never stumbling over his next word.

His office is rather Spartan for the commander of 1,500 examiners. It is equipped with a wooden desk, a simple couch, and a few chairs.

In fact, the office could be mistaken for that of a low-level bureaucrat, if it weren't for the striking painting that hangs behind his desk. The picture features a lush, green landscape with menacing storm clouds overhead. "It conveys the way bank supervisors feel," he said. "There are always storms on the horizon."

Mr. Spillenkothen's strongest support comes from inside the central bank.

Fed Governor Edward W. Kelley Jr. said Mr. Spillenkothen can juggle scores of regulatory and legal issues without losing track of any of them. "He has the ability to be conversant on almost anything at any time," Mr. Kelley said.

Mr. LaWare, now vice chairman of the Secura Group, said Mr. Spillenkothen is effective, articulate, and smart.

"He's not Bill Taylor," Mr. LaWare said. "He doesn't have that kind of personality. But he is just as competent, especially when it comes to administrative matters. In fact, he might be better than Mr. Taylor."

Outsiders are far more critical - anonymously, of course. One banking lawyer, who used to work at the Fed, said Mr. Spillenkothen is a master of the mixed signal. "You are not really sure where you stand," he said.

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