In its search for the right formula to boost profits from residential lending, Fleet Mortgage Group is replacing its chairman with the No. 2 executive from another industry giant, Chase Manhattan Mortgage Corp.
Gerald L. Baker, chairman of Fleet Financial Group's mortgage unit for just a year and a half, is resigning to become an independent consultant, Fleet confirmed on Friday.
He will be replaced by Richard A. Mirro, chief operating officer of Chase Mortgage under chairman Thomas Jacob. Mr. Mirro had headed Chase's mortgage unit before its parent's merger with Chemical Banking Corp.
Industry sources said Mr. Baker, a marketing specialist, may have been forced out in favor of an executive with a broader lending background and a more bankerly style. Mr. Baker had a strong reputation for bringing in loans, but no previous experience in managing the portfolios afterward.
His resignation is the latest in a string of high-level departures at the Columbia, S.C., unit of Fleet Financial Group. Since February, the company's president and production chief have quit, and the man hired to replace the production chief also resigned.
Executives at Fleet Financial maintain the comings and goings do not signal something fundamentally wrong with Fleet Mortgage. But the shuffling does point up the treacherous nature of a business whose top executives are expected to produce profits from razor-thin margins.
The pressure is especially keen for Chase and Fleet, which occupy respectively the No. 3 and 4 spots among loan servicers. These companies are constantly scrambling for loans to replenish and build their portfolios and support the hefty infrastructures needed to perform the servicing.
The post-merger Chase originated about $27 billion of home loans on a pro forma basis last year, against about $16 billion for Fleet.
The job changes have created opportunities, especially for Mr. Mirro, who relishes being back in the saddle. The 10- year Chase Manhattan veteran ran the company's mortgage unit until April, when it was merged with Chemical Mortgage and placed in the hands of that unit's chief, Thomas Jacob.
"It's always more comfortable being No. 1," said Mr. Mirro.
Under an agreement between the mortgage companies, Mr. Mirro will start at Fleet Mortgage the last week of this month. Mr. Baker will leave almost immediately thereafter.
Mr. Baker said he was leaving on good terms with Fleet. The 53-year-old executive plans to pursue a long-held desire to lecture and write books about management.
"I figure I'd better do it now while I have the energy," he said.
Mr. Baker joined Fleet Mortgage in November 1994 from Countrywide Credit Industries, Pasadena, Calif., where he headed loan production and marketing.
During Mr. Baker's time at Fleet, the company began rolling out a new automation system and set up a number of new sales channels. He wanted to give Fleet more of a Countrywide style by emphasizing the bank-owned company's entrepreneurial bent.
While he is credited with making considerable headway in that direction, the approach might have been unpalatable to other Fleet officials, according to industry executives.
"When you bring in a top executive from the outside, you run the risk of the cultures and the processes not mixing," said Gerard Cassidy, banking analyst for Hancock Institutional Equities Services in Portland, Me.
And some observers said Mr. Baker may have been pushed out for failing to deliver a stronger bottom line. "Apparently his skill set was not what was needed by Fleet," Mr. Cassidy said.
Michael R. Zucchini, group vice chairman in charge of mortgage operations, defended Mr. Baker, saying that he had helped the company build up areas like telemarketing and wholesaling.
He also shrugged aside industry talk that Mr. Baker believed in liberal spending to accomplish his goals. "Expense control is a major issue for any company," Mr. Zucchini said. "That will continue to be true as we move forward."
Mr. Mirro's marching orders will include selling more mortgage loans through Fleet's 1,200 banking branches.
At Chase, Mr. Mirro guided servicing, compliance, credit risk, and other corporate services. Those responsibilities will now be split among other executives, a spokesman said, adding, "We have an extremely strong management team."
With the addition of Mr. Mirro, Fleet Mortgage takes a key - but not final - step toward revamping upper management. The company's president, Robert Golitz, resigned in February and was replaced last month by chief financial officer Kevin Race.
In May, Fleet saw the departure of production chief John Daly, who stayed less than a year. Philip W. Bracken, a former managing director with the parent of Prudential Home Mortgage, was brought in last month to handle that role in addition to other responsibilities. He resigned two weeks later, and Fleet is now looking for a replacement.
Juliana Ratner contributed to this article.