KEVIN GAGE Chief executive officer Bank of Darien, Conn.

At 32, even Kevin Gage wonders whether he may be the youngest bank chief executive in the nation.

When he was tapped two years ago as president and chief executive of Connecticut's Bank of Darien, Mr. Gage made a brief effort to find out whether he held the age record. But truth to tell, he's still doesn't know for certain.

No matter: His real distinction is not his youth but his success in singlehandedly restoring an ailing bank to profitability in one of the nation's most troubled markets.

Back in 1985, Mr. Gage began working at Bank of Darien's parent company, Hometown Bancorp, as an outside auditor for Price Waterhouse & Co. His job was to do the bank's annual audit.

Sandy-haired and wiry, Mr. Gage was still working on his master's degree in business administration at the University of Bridgeport. Yet he so impressed the board with his judgment that it tapped him in 1986 to be treasurer and chief financial officer.

The appointment of a relatively inexperienced man in his mid-20s raised some eyebrows. But Mr. Gage laid doubts to rest in 1988 when he rescued the bank from a disastrous acquisition scheme.

Senior management had drawn up plans to merge with two rapidly expanding Connecticut banks: Landmark Bank of Hartford and Community National Bank of Glastonbury.

But Mr. Gage, who led the audit team in combing through the target banks' books, saw that they had lent heavily to real estate developers whose projects were at risk if the economy headed south. Mr. Gage kept the bank out of the deal. And it's a good thing he did. The two banks failed last year.

By early 1990, Bank of Darien began experiencing its own real estate woes, suffering serious loan losses. President and chief executive James E. Banks resigned in May of that year, and the board gave the job to Mr. Gage.

He lost no time in taking stringent measures to reverse the company's downward slide. He bit the bullet early, taking heavy loss provisions and chargeoffs for soured loans.

He also launched a marketing program geared toward the affluent customer base in the bank's Fairfield County market. He completely dumped the traditional teller line; instead, each "client" does his or her business at a desk on the branch floor.

Mr. Gage also introduced a plan to compensate customer-service employees with commissions for their sales.

Bank of Darien returned to profitability last June and increased its deposits by 20% last year. Its assets total about $100 million, and the core capital ratio was a healthy 10.08% in June.

"There's no doubnt the bank's strong capital position and profitability are giving us an edge in the market," says Mr. Gage, sounding wise beyond his years.

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