R. Harold Owens, who joined Keycorp in April to help form a consumer finance unit, has abruptly left the Cleveland-based bank.

Mr. Owens will join World Acceptance Corp., Greenville, S.C., on June 26 as an executive vice president and chief operating officer. The latter job was created for Mr. Owens, the company said in a press release.

His departure comes as Keycorp maps ambitious plans to make loans to borrowers with tainted credit histories.

Mr. Owens, who is known as a veteran home equity lender with a keen sense of the business, was a high-profile hire for Keycorp's new consumer finance initiative, Keycorp Finance Inc.

A Keycorp spokesman said "it is a disappointment" that Mr. Owens left, but his departure "will not affect any of the national consumer finance initiatives now under way."

He said an outside search for a new Keycorp Finance president and chief executive had begun.

Mr. Owens is a former president of Security Pacific Financial Services Inc., San Diego. He headed Fleet Finance, the Atlanta unit of Fleet Financial Group, Providence, R.I., during the worst of its fair-lending troubles in 1992 to 1993.

He said his stint at Fleet "was just a nightmare" - that he found a lot of problems he hadn't known about when he took the job. He left after 19 months to help start Keycorp's finance company.

He'd never started a finance company from scratch, he said. "I had wanted to do it. The deal at Keycorp was very exciting to me."

But Keycorp did not let him form the company as quickly as he wanted, he said. He said that he "was antsy" to get Keycorp Finance off the ground but there was "a little bit of confusion" at Keycorp about which way the finance company should go."

Mr. Owens thought it should be composed of a network of decentralized branches.

Keycorp had made a "very sincere commitment" to creating a finance company, he said, but "the game plan was not clearly defined."

Meanwhile, World Acceptance, one of the nation's largest originators of small unsecured loans, continued to solicit Mr. Owens. Days ago, he acquiesced.

Charles D. Walters, who is World's chairman, chief executive, president, and de facto chief operating officer, said the company has been thin at the senior management level. He said Mr. Owens will ease that strain, and perhaps one day take over for him.

Mr. Owens said it was an extremely difficult decision to leave Keycorp, considering the commitment he had made to company and the good rapport he had developed with his colleagues there. But his career outweighed such considerations.

"A better deal for Harold Owens came along," he said.

He said World was a far more entrepreneurial company.

He said World has plans to add 25 to 30 new offices over each of the next two years. It now has 260 offices in seven states. Entries into four new states are now on the drawing board, he said.

He said he would help World explore the possibility of offering new products, including home equity loans, and purchasing other consumer finance companies. "I think it will be a lot of fun."

As for Keycorp, Mr. Owens is still bullish on its finance company's future in home equity lending.

"They just have to find the right person for it," he said.

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