MIAMI BEACH -- A retired chief executive officer of First Chicago Corp. lamented the effect that industry consolidation may be having on local philanthropic and community-service commitments by banking companies.

Richard Thomas, who was chairman of First Chicago and First Chicago NBD Corp. before it became part of Bank One Corp., said the declining number of large banks, and with it the number of executives in senior positions, means there are fewer people to take the civic leadership positions that bankers historically and disproportionately filled.

"Others will have to pick up that slack -- otherwise communities will lose that ingredient," Mr. Thomas said Tuesday evening to an audience of early arrivals at Bank Administration Institute's Retail Delivery '99 Conference. He was participating in a panel discussion of elder statesmen, also consisting of former NCNB Corp. (later renamed NationsBank and Bank of America) chairman Thomas Storrs, the credit card pioneer and retired Visa International president Dee Hock, and Washington consultant Carter H. Golembe.

Mr. Storrs did not share Mr. Thomas' concern about bankers' community contributions. Though conceding that banking companies are consolidating, growing in size, and shrinking in number -- he called that a net plus for efficiency and the ability to exploit technology -- Mr. Storrs said bankers remain accountable to their hometowns. Civic involvement plays a big part in their ability to prosper at the local level and rise through their organizations, he said.

"I don't understand what the issue is," Mr. Storrs said. He took some credit on behalf of Bank of America and its predecessor companies for ensuring that the headquarters city of Charlotte, N.C., has a vital, central core.

Mr. Golembe, invoking his background as an economic historian, pointed out that before the Civil War, banks were heavily responsible for the expansion of the American West -- then stretching from the Allegheny Mountains to the Mississippi River. By acting very different from established eastern institutions, frontier banks "literally built entire cities," he said.

"Banks are most productive to a community when they do the right thing in a business sense," Mr. Thomas responded. He then clarified the point that he was trying to make: that when Chicago was home to five sizable banks, "they had a bigger impact on the fabric of the city than today, when we have two."

Mr. Hock also called attention to ethics and community service. An advocate of new approaches to organization that would replace mechanistic, industrial-age hierarchies -- he recently published a book on the subject, "Birth of the Chaordic Age" -- Mr. Hock said megamergers have the effect of increasingly "removing people who make decisions from the consequences of their decisions."

Meanwhile, financial engineering and the monetization of all exchanges of value ("welfare, health care, you name it," he said) have led to the creation of a "casino society" in which the vast majority of transactions have nothing to do with producing useful goods and services. That and accompanying greed are obstacles to community-spiritedness, Mr. Hock said.

When asked what he would tell a young adult considering a career in banking, Mr. Hock said he would urge a soul-searching, a consideration of personal values and beliefs and desired contributions to society, and a "look at the values of the industry you'd be joining. If there is a fit, then go for it. If you are not passionate about it, then go elsewhere."

Mr. Hock maintained an outsider's pose, saying he got into banking and credit cards accidentally in the 1960s and retired from Visa in 1984 to pursue broader implementation of his ideas about organization and community.

"I came into banking reluctantly, enjoyed it immensely, and left it eagerly," he said.

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