More than two decades ago, Terrence Murray, a Fleet Industrial Bank vice president, hired a Bostonian fresh out of Harvard and eager to establish his footing in the financial world.

That rookie, Thomas M. O'Neill, did stints in the bank's management trainee program and behind the teller window before leaving to pursue a career in money management.

Now, Mr. O'Neill has come full circle. He's returning to the much larger Fleet Financial Group as head of its investment advisory arm - many notches above where he started in 1973.

O'Neill, not one to downplay his potential contribution, says Fleet "is getting some return on its investment."

Mr. O'Neill, 44, will direct Fleet's $26 billion asset-management operation, which includes the Galaxy Funds and institutional operations like 401(k) plans.

The assets will leap to $42 billion later this year when Fleet completes its merger with Shawmut National Corp. The Boston bank brings to the table $16 billion of assets to be managed.

"This is a fabulous opportunity to get in on the ground level," says Mr. O'Neill, who starts at Fleet on Sept. 11.

For the past two years, O'Neill, who also holds a master's of business administration from Harvard, has served as president of Aeltus Investment Management, the Hartford, Conn., investment advisory arm of Aetna Life and Casualty Co.

In taking the banking post, Mr. O'Neill will replace Fleet's Harold A. Mackinney, 60, who is preparing to retire.

"After 37 years with Fleet, I have wanted to step back and take a slightly less active role," Mr. Mackinney says.

Mr. O'Neill says he would like to make the asset management operation "even bigger," but he is not going into the job with guns blazing.

He recognizes that his new job will have plenty of challenges. First, he must consolidate the investment management operations of two institutions - Fleet and Shawmut. Second, the new combined entity is twice the size of the $21 billion operation he oversaw at Aeltus.

"The size certainly is an issue in terms of getting the new business organized," Mr. O'Neill said.

From the Fleet and Shawmut pieces, Mr. O'Neill wants to craft "a top quality organization."

The unit, he said, "should not be thought of as a bank, but as an investment business that competes on its own" with large fund companies.

That approach is necessary if Fleet expects to compete in the New England marketplace, according to Mr. O'Neill. "Clients are getting much more sophisticated, from the retail level on up."

Mr. O'Neill says he heard about the Fleet position through an unsolicited call from a headhunter and was "very interested" when he found out that the company was his former employer.

The sentimental pull notwithstanding, Mr. O'Neill says he needed some convincing to take the post.

In the end, he was won over by "their firm commitment to the investment management business as one of the bank's primary growth drivers."

Mr. O'Neill certainly had no qualms about working again with Mr. Murray, now chairman of Fleet. "There is no BS with Terry," he says. "He's a tough business man, but a nice man."

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