No one wants to come right out and say it, but a lot of people think Jim Culberson is the best president the American Bankers Association has had in years.

People say he's friendly, honest, and hard-nosed - all at the same time.

"There is just something about him - if he says it, I believe him," explains Roger Beverage, president of the Oklahoma Bankers Association.

"It's been a wonderful year for ABA," agrees Howard L. McMillian, president of Deposit Guaranty National Bank and ABA president in 1995. "Jim's been tough when he needed to be. When it's come time to sit down and negotiate, he's been able to do that without giving up our basic position."

Mr. Culberson's own view: "I was at the right place at the right time to have a great year."

During his tenure, credit union expansion was checked, and bank insurance powers were expanded in huge legal victories. Deposit insurance premiums dropped to zero, adding more than $1 billion a year to the industry's bottom line. Banks saved another $1.5 billion as ABA opposition delayed the thrift fund rescue for a year and then postponed the bulk of the industry's tab until 2000.

While the ABA can claim credit for stalling the bailout, some bankers and lobbyists think the industry should have gotten more for its $5.6 billion contribution.

From the start, the group should have demanded that lawmakers expand the banking industry's charter, says Annie Hall, lead lobbyist for Banc One Corp. in Columbus, Ohio. But James J. Butera, an independent lobbyist, said Congress was never going to go that far this year.

"I think that the ABA has done a very effective job for its members on this," Mr. Butera says.

Mr. Culberson agrees. "Banks were very, very vulnerable," he says. "Congress tried to ram it down our throats. We were successful in holding that back, and that was a really tough fight."

In return for helping, banks won some relief from regulations, protection from environmental cleanup costs, and assurance that the funds won't be merged before the industry's charters.

"I'm satisfied that we put together the best solution we could," Mr. Culberson says. But he adds, "I'm still really mad. There is no justification to ask the banking industry to bail SAIF out."

Mr. Culberson says he is proudest of launching the ABA task force on the payment system, which is scheduled to deliver its first report on Sunday.

"The payment system is the lifeblood of banking," he says. "If we let nonbanks into this, the whole system's security is at risk."

As for next year, Mr. Culberson predicts another fight with the insurance agents as Congress tries to meld the bank and thrift charters.

But that battle will be waged by the next ABA president, Walter A. Dods Jr., chairman and chief executive of First Hawaiian Inc. and its main subsidiary, $8 billion-asset First Hawaiian Bank.

Mr. Culberson, 67, got involved in ABA in the early 1980s, joining its Community Bankers Council. He has mixed emotions about leaving the trade group's helm.

While excited to get back his weekends - as ABA president, Mr. Culberson spent 80% of his time traveling - he's sad too. "It's been an intoxicating experience," he says. "But it's time to hand the mantle."

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