Fleet Financial Group executives say the recent streamlining of the commercial banking unit will help put more emphasis on investment banking and other corporate finance activities.

Under the new arrangement, announced late last month, three men will oversee Fleet's commercial banking activities.

Leo R. Breitman will head commercial banking, Timothy J. Conway will head investment banking, and Richard A. Higginbotham will head specialty lending.

"They'll work together as a team," said Robert J. Higgins, who headed up the Boston-based bank's commercial division before becoming president and chief operating officer last April.

The restructuring also emphasizes specialized lending by putting Mr. Higginbotham on par with Fleet's commercial and investment banking heads. Mr. Higginbotham has led Fleet's specialized lending group since 1981.

"We are teeing up our specialized lending groups, primarily in those industries that Fleet has historically had investment banking business," Mr. Higgins said. These include insurance, real estate, technology, health care, jewelry, precious metals, and commercial fishing.

But in one exception to the arrangement, Fleet's large media and communications group was moved from Mr. Higginbotham's specialized lending division to Mr. Conway's investment banking division.

"There is a lot of consolidation in that industry right now," Mr. Higgins said. "The highest value banks can add is less in the traditional point-spread loan business, but more in larger facilities, loan syndication, and helping (clients) navigate the capital markets."

Mr. Conway joined Fleet in 1996 after eight years in Citicorp's corporate finance division, where his duties included bank loan syndications, private placements, and sponsor finance.

Fleet Capital, a nationwide asset-based lender with mostly middle-market customers, will also come under Mr. Conway's investment banking division, although Peter Bland will continue to manage it.

Mr. Conway will still head the bank's corporate finance department. Since joining Fleet, he has beefed up Fleet's corporate finance staff from 15 to about 100.

Fleet's corporate finance activities include bank loan syndications, private placements of debt and equity, asset securitization, acquisition finance, financial advisory, and mergers and acquisitions.

Fleet's recently received limited Tier 2 powers that allow the bank only to continue the debt and equity trading at Quick & Reilly Group, a national brokerage chain it recently acquired. Mr. Conway said the bank is evaluating when to apply for debt and equity underwriting powers, with particular interest in public high-yield debt.

But the primary reason for Fleet's recent reorganization was to reduce the inordinately high number of department managers reporting directly to Mr. Higgins, industry observers agree.

Opinions vary on whether the three-pronged approach to commercial banking will work. Thomas K. Brown, a bank equity analyst with Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette, New York, said he doesn't think so. He views the recent changes as an evolutionary step leading, possibly within a year, to the consolidation of commercial banking under one person.

"I believe one of them will emerge as the head, and I believe that will be Breitman," Mr. Brown said. A former vice chairman of Bank of New England, Mr. Breitman is the chairman and chief executive officer of Fleet National Bank-Massachusetts.

Thomas F. Theurkauf Jr., a banking analyst with Keefe, Bruyette & Woods Inc., New York, doesn't see a problem with allocating commercial banking leadership among three equals.

"They each have distinct responsibilities," Mr. Theurkauf said. "I don't believe they will step on each others' toes."

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