Last year was a great one for FleetBoston Financial Corp., which ranked as the second most profitable financial services company among the 100 largest.

"Everything came together last year," says CEO Terrence Murray. "We'd love to repeat it this year, but it doesn't look like it."

FleetBoston's relative strength reflected a high return on assets, 22.5%, and a 75% jump in per-share earnings. That rise in earnings reflected in part a poor 1999. While last year's performance was superb, Fleet has performed well over the longer term as well. Averaged over the past five years, Fleet comes in as No. 7 out of the 100 companies.

Murray says that how 2001 ends up will depend heavily on the economy. The first quarter was "okay," he says, but adds that "it probably won't be a good first half. The rest will depend on what happens to the economy."

FleetBoston has increased its investment banking activities in recent years and that gave a super lift to its profits in 2000. Its San Francisco-based Robertson Stephens unit, which specializes in high-technology businesses, contributed about 15% of the $179.5 billion-asset holding company's earnings last year. But by the fourth quarter, that had dropped to about 3%.

Murray thanks FleetBoston's diversity for much of the company's success. He notes that Robertson Stephens' big profits last year enabled FleetBoston to deal successfully with more than $1 billion of problem loans that had been put on the books in the 1997-1998 period. Those loans were extended to highly leveraged companies.

In addition to that, FleetBoston's large international business has been booming, another aspect of its diversity.

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