Hours after Chemical Banking Corp. announced last week that it had given up its external search for a mortgage chief in favor of appointing insider Thomas Jacob, a hot rumor began to circulate.

The story: John Robbins, former chief executive of American Residential and a top candidate for the Chemical job, had been dropped at the last moment. As a consolation, the rumor goes, Mr. Robbins was allowed to keep a seven-figure signing bonus.

Mr. Robbins is among a handful of mortgage banking CEOs who found themselves significantly richer after last year's wave of bank acquisitions, but without a job. Others include David Frank, the No. 2 Margaretten executive who quit the top job at Chemical earlier this year, and his mentor and Margaretten founder, Felix Beck.

Mr. Robbins' appointment at Chemical, according to one version of the rumor, was nixed by Chase executives who were angry over their underperforming acquisition of American Residential in 1994.

Reached in Washington on Monday, where he was attending a meeting at Fannie Mae, Mr. Robbins dismissed the rumors but acknowledged he had been close to getting the job.

"It was getting close," Mr. Robbins said. "There's no question about that."

He said "most of the major financial issues had been resolved and agreed to." But there was no signing bonus, he added.

"Do I think that I am owed something? Do I think there was any impropriety in the way it was handled? Absolutely not," he said.

Chemical Bank also vigorously denied that any money changed hands.

If Chase's veto didn't kill the deal, what did?

Mr. Robbins suggested that after the Chemical and Chase merger was announced, it made more sense to promote from within because so many senior officers would be laid off.

"It well may have been the same decision I would have made if I were in their place," he said.

Indeed, Mr. Beck, a member of the search committee, confirmed that once the Chase merger was announced, the committee decided to go with an internal candidate.

But the Robbins deal was so close to being done that Mr. Robbins' well- wishers in San Diego scheduled, and then canceled, a goodbye party for him there.

Well into last week, Chemical Bank had not told Mr. Robbins that he was being passed over for the job. On Thursday, the bank publicly announced its decision to appoint Mr. Jacob, who had overseen the bank's consumer banking division.

The 48-year-old Mr. Robbins said he misses the day-to-day action of running a mortgage bank.

He said he had been drawn to the Chemical job by the challenge of integrating a mortgage bank into a commercial bank. The task, he said, involves combining the sales-driven and entrepreneurial ways of a mortgage bank with the more traditional bank culture.

At Chemical, he said, senior bank executives seemed well aware of the challenge, and were looking for help in designing a strategy.

The key task for the new Chemical/Chase mortgage chief, he said, will be establishing a united culture.

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