When Cornelius "Neil" D. Mahoney takes the helm of America's Community Bankers this week, Congress will be considering legislation to eliminate the thrift charter.

In an interview here, the president and chief executive of Woronoco Savings Bank said his No. 1 priority is persuading lawmakers to leave the thrift charter alone.

"We deserve a choice and the ability to self-determine our businesses," he said.

"We are trying to create a financial HMO," he added. "We want to be able to provide managed financial care to our customers by offering basic banking products, insurance products, investment products."

Mr. Mahoney, 52, began his career as a commercial banker. In 1970, after a stint as an Army intelligence officer responsible for cracking enemy codes in Vietnam, he returned to his original post: Honolulu.

First Hawaiian Bank hired him as a management trainee, and Mr. Mahoney eventually became the title mortgage investor services officer, supervising real estate loans sold to secondary markets.

After five years at First Hawaiian, Mr. Mahoney moved back to his native Massachusetts and took a job as a loan officer at Woronoco Savings. By 1986, he had become president and chief executive.

In 1994, Mr. Mahoney was named chairman of the Massachusetts Bankers Association, one of the first state commercial bank groups to merge with the local thrift trade association. Woronoco Savings quit the American Bankers Association the next year, when it became clear he was in line to be chairman of the thrift group.

"That would have pulled me in two different directions, and ACB members would have hanged me," Mr. Mahoney said.

But his varied experience gives Mr. Mahoney a unique perspective, according to Paul A. Schosberg, the thrift association's president.

"He's hard to pigeonhole," Mr. Schosberg said. "Because he has had his foot in so many camps, his concern is not just about the thrift charter, but about freedom of choice that executives will need if they are going to deal with new forms of competition."

When asked whether there is any truth to the persistent rumors that the ABA and ACB will merge, Mr. Mahoney said a marriage is not on his radar screen because bankers want to abolish the thrift charter.

(By contrast, ABA president William T. McConnell also chairman and chief executive of Park National Corp., has said merging the trade groups is one of his priorities.)

Pending financial modernization legislation isn't the only threat facing thrifts, Mr. Mahoney said. The Internet could turn out to be a hazard as well.

As potential customers are increasingly able to shop the Internet for banking services, smaller community-based institutions could lose their competitive edge over superregionals, Mr. Mahoney said.

"I can beat my big bank competitors-Fleet, BankBoston-here in town because I know my customers very well," he said. "But that personal connection is being attacked because people can access information in an alternative way."

Another big issue for the industry is credit union competition. Credit unions must be made subject to the Community Reinvestment Act, and must pay taxes, he said.

As a Massachusetts savings bank executive, Mr. Mahoney is in a unusually well-qualified to understand the issue. Until 1952, institutions like his did not pay taxes.

"It's part of the rites of passage," Mr. Mahoney said. "If you want to build a base of more modern financial transactions, you have to pay taxes."

Massachusetts, incidentally, is the only state in which credit unions must obey CRA-like rules.

"Credit unions here have gotten used to this, and it works," Mr. Mahoney said. "If all credit unions are not subject to CRA, they have no required social responsibility like we have to go through."

Besides addressing the major issues facing the thrift industry, Mr. Mahoney also plans to push for legislation allowing banks to pay interest on small-business accounts.

For years, Mr. Mahoney has been pushing lawmakers to drop that ban, a campaign he admits is not particularly popular with other community bankers.

"At first blush, bankers immediately assume that by paying this interest, they are slapping a tax on every one of their business accounts," Mr. Mahoney said.

But it is a perfect way to lure small-business deposits to the bank, Mr. Mahoney argues. Besides, big banks are skirting the law by sweeping funds into sophisticated money market accounts, he said.

Though Mr. Mahoney has been successful in Washington, he prides himself on serving Westfield. The 126-year-old Woronoco Savings recently decided to expand the colonial-style building that houses its headquarters. With room for trust, human resources, and financial management departments in the main building, Mr. Mahoney decided he no longer needed the large two-story house across the parking lot. So he sold it for $1 to a local affordable housing group.

Local business owners who bank with Woronoco Savings praise Mr. Mahoney for going beyond merely offering banking products.

"Sure they've got good rates, but the people there have really helped educate me as a new business owner about the do's and don'ts of running a business," said Gregory F. Garstka, who became the owner of Performance Music three years ago. "Besides, Neil is a pretty decent guitar player."

Mr. Mahoney often strolls up Elm St. at lunchtime to jam with Mr. Garstka in front of his store. He also reads to local school kids, sponsors local youth hockey and baseball, and helps fund an organization to aid cancer survivors.

"We're a mutual, so the community owns the bank," Mr. Mahoney said. "You do those things that enhance the well-being of your community."

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