From the window of his 11th-floor office, Michael C. Noble looks out on scores of construction workers tearing up Providence's pavement. Underneath are dozens of old canals, which the workers plan to expose and connect as part of a major renovation of the Rhode Island capital's infrastructure.
The scene is an inspiration to Mr. Noble, who is trying to pull off a similar feat for Fleet Financial Group Inc. A managing director for Fleet Investment Services, Mr. Noble is building bridges between the private client services unit of the Boston-based bank and those of the two competitors it recently acquired - Shawmut National Corp. and the U.S. retail operation of National Westminster Bank PLC.
The challenge, Mr. Noble said, is to preserve the strengths of each of those institutions' private banks, while creating a cost-effective whole. The new Fleet manages $23.5 billion for wealthy clients in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Maine, New York, New Jersey, and Florida.
"The banks of our size - the large superregionals - have an advantage in that they have a very strong tradition in trust and investment management," Mr. Noble said. "The challenge for us is to deliver the good service locally."
As the acquisition wave rolls over the banking industry, Mr. Noble, who is 43, is now in an elite league of private banking heads in the country managing enormous, far-flung businesses. NationsBank Corp., Wells Fargo & Co., Chase Manhattan Corp., and First Union Corp., have all seen their trust, investment management, and private banking lines expand geographically as a result of mergers.
Like the emboldened Fleet, these banks claim an ability to provide more sophisticated investments and services than their predecessor institutions. But as they enter new regions and markets, they also risk alienating customers who are accustomed to receiving highly personalized service from homegrown banks.
"People say 'if you're not headquartered here, it can't be important to you,'" Mr. Noble said. "But we probably have more people in the Worcester (Mass.) marketplace than any other provider, even the local institutions."
At Fleet, Mr. Noble said he has taken steps to make sure the bank's entrance into new territories goes smoothly. "We've dedicated a lot of resources to cover our entire franchise with a lot of higher-caliber individuals," he said. His unit is also hoping to capitalize on the aggressive advertising campaign that Fleet's consumer bank is now running in some its new markets, like New York.
"That is air cover for many of the lines of business," he said. "When we call up people in direct marketing or through referrals, Fleet is not a foreign name. It makes it easier for us to go in."
The newest markets that Mr. Noble's business is attacking are New York, New Jersey, and Florida. As a result of acquiring Natwest, for instance, Fleet now manages $2 billion in private-client assets in the New York area. The plan there is to have former Natwest commercial bankers systematically refer wealthy businesspeople to the 100 private-client professionals now working for Fleet in the region.
In Florida, the deal for Shawmut boosted Fleet's presence substantially, giving it a total of $1 billion under management there. Mr. Noble said he would like to see that number double over the next two to three years.
To that end, he recently named James N. Field as chairman of Fleet Trust and Investment Co., which does business in Naples and Stewart. Mr. Field was formerly managing director of Providence Group, an affiliate of the bank, and board member of Fleet National Bank.
Spreading across large regions of the country, big banks such as Fleet can wield a tremendous advantage when it comes to accessing world-class investment management for wealthy clients, competitors acknowledge. But their size could turn off the less-affluent.
"We're smaller, so we don't have to spend a long time managing a large bureaucracy," said Timothy L. Vaill, president of Boston Private Bank and Trust Co.
Mr. Vaill, whose upstart bank is managing more than $630 million for private clients, added that big and small banks have respective positions in the business where they both should do well.
"Within a large organization they have much larger financial goals to reach, it doesn't make sense for them to spend as much time on a $300,000 account," Mr. Vaill said, "whereas in a smaller bank you can spend a lot of time on a smaller account and you do well."
But Mr. Noble said Fleet has revamped its private client services group to give lots of attention to different types of clients. Central to that reconstruction are relationship managers - former trust officers or lenders who now serve as account managers.
Employees who did not want to assume that role now work as trust or credit experts, supporting co-workers who have client responsibility, Mr. Noble said.
Fleet has also set up a separate trust administration system for beneficiaries whose accounts fall below the $500,000 bar - a technique used by other behemoths such as Wells Fargo & Co. and NationsBank Corp. Instead of working with a banker close by, these beneficiaries dial a toll-free telephone number to reach a trust administrator at one of four call centers.
Smaller banks argue that by using such systems, larger banks provide inferior service to their less-profitable clients. But Mr. Noble maintains that under the new systems, clients with smaller accounts actually get more attention than before.
"It's handled much more efficiently in that environment than it ever was in the field," Mr. Noble said. "If you have 10 accounts - five under $500,000 and five over $3 million each - who do you think you're going to give your attention to?"
But changing services for the bulk of smaller accounts can open doors for smaller banks, trust companies, and investment managers to steal business.
"By design you decide you are going to lose some clients," said Jeb Britton 3d, a senior consultant with Spectrem Group, San Francisco.
Still, Mr. Britton added that reorganizations like the one at Fleet can work for big banks.
"There is no one model that will work for everybody. Fleet will be successful - no doubt about it," he said.
Indeed, Fleet has remained a constant on the lists of New England trust and estate attorneys who refer wealthy clients to corporate fiduciaries.
"Fleet has emerged with an extremely capable group of people on the investments and services side," said Michael W. Elsass, a partner at Day, Berry & Howard in Hartford, Conn. "They have captured a lot of the confidence that people had in its predecessor institutions."
Mr. Elsass said small banks do have advantages when it comes to giving clients personal service, but added it is hard to overlook the consistent expertise big banks have. He suggests clients keep that in mind.
"If they go down the street to a local banker and say 'I know this guy, let's have him manage Dad's estate', they might be giving something up," Mr. Elsass said.
Mr. Noble concedes that Fleet is still combating a perception that it is a Johnny-come-lately in many of the markets it has entered through acquisition. And not all clients want to stay on.
For example, Martha P. Greene of Greenfield, Mass., is suing to move her trust out of Fleet because her father originally named a community bank as the account's trustee. She said she loathes dealing with Fleet via a toll- free phone number.
Mr. Noble would not comment on Ms. Greene's case. But he said that one principle overrides disputes with beneficiaries.
"We are the corporate trustee. We take that very seriously. If we relax standards, it frequently will come back to haunt you," he said.
Some industry experts say in rare cases a bank should just resign to get away from an angry client, but Mr. Noble sticks to his guns.
"In fairness to all our clients, you have to be very careful about precedence in the business. You lose credit with prospective clients," he added.