The plane crash in Croatia last month that killed Commerce Secretary Ron Brown also claimed the life of the chairman and chief executive of Riggs International Banking Corp.

Though it was obviously a major loss for the parent Riggs National Corp., the Washington, D.C., bank was able to quickly fill the temporary leadership vacuum the accident created.

"Paul (Cushman) was a very important member of our team," said Tige Savage, a Riggs spokesman. "But we are fortunate in that the individual that worked very closely with him will be able to step into that position and do a good job."

Not all banks and thrifts could say the same thing. The unexpected death or surprise departure of a CEO or senior executive can traumatize corporations of all sizes. But the problems can be more acute at community- sized institutions, where top executives play dominant, all-encompassing roles.

An untimely death can result in a damaging crisis of management, experts say.

Consequently, bank boards need to implement formal succession policies and encourage a more democratic management style so that when the CEO goes, the keys to the bank don't go with him, experts said.

"Part of the strength of community bank CEOs is their noregimental style, the way they seem to manage from the hip," said Steven P. Williams, managing director of M One Inc., a Phoenix consulting firm.

"But that also puts at risk the continuity of the organization when they're gone because there has been no formalized transfer of skills and knowledge for someone to take over."

Mr. Williams and other observers said the lack of internal grooming procedures and succession policies will be a central issue forcommunity banks in the coming years as their current CEOs reach retirement age.

Trustmark Corp. in Jackson, Miss., for example, made public last month that its chairman and CEO of the past 15 years, Frank Day, has been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig's disease. The bank said Mr. Day, 64, has no plans to retire.

Mr. Savage, the Riggs spokesman, said that the bank has no formal succession policy in place, but a draft policy will soon be formalized. Riggs also has implemented some management redundancies so that deputies or other managers can quickly fill a vacated position, he said.

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