EUGENE MCQUADE, THE NEW CHIEF financial officer of Fleet Financial Group, has accepted an assignment that could easily turn him into a pariah among his peers.

He is the point man for "Fleet Focus 1994," a "reengineering" designed to help reduce Fleet's efficiency ratio from 67% to 60%. Translation: He will be responsible for across-the-board layoffs at New England's biggest banking company once the seven-month review period is over.

But Mr. McQuade, who joined Fleet 18 months ago after 12 years at Manufacturers Hanover Corp., is not worried about winning popularity contests. The consumate corporate man, he said he believes his low-key style and Fleet's employee-centered approach will stand him in good stead.

"You can't be effective at changing anything if you're not accepted by the players," the 43-year-old executive said in a recent interview.

Mr. McQuade noted that Fleet's plan is democratic to the core.

"The expense programs I have seen have all come from the top down," he said. Fleet Focus is different, he said, because it "empowers" the company's 20,000 employees to examine how they do their jobs and come up with ways to do them better.

Mr. McQuade was recruited by Fleet at the end of 1991 after he was passed over for the post of controller of Chemical Banking Corp., which was was about to absorb Manufacturers Hanover. The executive, who was Hanover's controller, was offered the strategically crucial post of director of management information systems.

Fleet made him a better offer. He went to work for John W. Flynn, the New England company's vice chairman and chief financial officer, who was widely considered second-in-command to chairman Terrence L. Murray.

Mr. Flynn decided to retire shortly after Mr. McQuade's arrival. When he left two months ago to begin a teaching career, Mr. McQuade took the title of chief financial officer and was promoted to executive vice president.

Mr. McQuade, a certified public accountant, now calls himself Fleet's "lead commentator," since a big part of his job involves talking to analysts, investors, and the media.

"It's put me on the firing line," Mr. McQuade said. "I'm held accountable for the good things and the bad things that happen around here."

For example, when Fleet took a $100 million charge in the second quarter related to heavy mortgage prepayments, Mr. McQuade had to explain the move to analysts and journalists.

The native New Yorker admitted that the post can be stressful, but he also said that life outside the Big Apple makes the recovery much easier. Mr. McQuade lives with his wife and three children in pastoral East Greenwich, R.I., and the family has a vacation home on Cape God.

New England "is a tremendous place to have spare time," Mr. McQuade said. "Sometimes I like to just sit on the ocean and play with my kids."

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