JEFFREY P. GAIA Senior vice president Valley National Bank, Phoenix

Jeffrey P. Gaia saw his star rise at Valley National Bank of Arizona after agreeing to take on what the company's chief executive described as "the worst job in the corporation."

The job was overseeing Valley National's mortgage unit, which was losing $5 million a year when Mr. Gaia took charge in April 1989. In fact, the unit had not posted a profit for almost a decade.

Mr. Gaia's mandate: Turn it around or shut it down.

In the event, Mr. Gaia not only saved the troubled unit but also turned it into a big money maker. The unit last year earned a 40% return on its assets and is the leading mortgage originator in Arizona. It was ranked 25th when Mr. Gaia arrived.

Valley National's top brass took notice of the performance. Mr. Gaia, 38, was promoted in July 1990 to manager of Valley National's special credits division, where he grapples with resolving bad commercial loans.

"It's the kind of job where, on a good day, you break even," he said.

Mr. Gaia certainly understands the problems and needs of Valley's commercial customers. He was area treasurer for Europe, Canada, Latin America, and Africa at Monsato Co., the St. Louis-based conglomerate.

"I was on the opposite side of the table from bankers," Mr. Gaia recalled. "I saw the borrower's perspective."

Mr. Gaia, who holds a master's degree in finance from St. Louis University, said he came into the banking industry with "a certain level of impatience with the status quo."

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