More than a few heads were turned when Keycorp announced earlier this month that it had hired R. Harold Owens to lead a start-up finance company.

Mr. Owens is a big name in the booming business of making home equity loans to people with blemished credit histories. Most recently, he was president and chief operating officer of Fleet Finance, a large, Atlanta- based unit of Fleet Financial Group.

Mr. Owens will be president of the still-unnamed new unit at Keycorp. It is expected to be part of a broad consumer finance operation that will include AutoFinance Group Inc., a "subprime" auto lender Keycorp purchased last month.

A spokeswoman for Cleveland-based Keycorp comfirmed that Mr. Owens has been hired to start a finance entity.

Last month, Keycorp announced that consumer finance would be one of its major focuses over the next five years. By emphasizing consumer finance, Keycorp hopes to address "the educational and large-purchase financing needs of younger Americans," according to an announcement of its plan, dubbed First Choice 2000.

Mr. Owens is a seasoned veteran - not only in building business but in handling the controversies that can come with the turf.

He arrived at Fleet Finance in October 1992, when the unit was embroiled in charges that it had profited by making high-interest loans to mostly poor, uneducated borrowers.

In 1993, Fleet Finance agreed to pay the state of Georgia and lawyers representing more than 2,700 borrowers who claim they were bilked by Fleet of more than $115 million. Other individual suits and class actions were also settled then.

Mr. Owens, who could not be reached for comment, had previously been president of Security Pacific Financial Services Inc., a San Diego-based home equity lender owned by BankAmerica Co.

William J. Brennan Jr., a public defender who represented about 35 borrowers in a lawsuit against Fleet Finance, said that Mr. Owens dealt heavily with Fleet's public relations crisis during his 20-month stint there. He said Mr. Owens was often in full-page newspaper ads aimed at boosting Fleet's image.

"He wasn't the guy that was around when all the bad things were going on," Mr. Brennan said. "He came on board to straighten things out."

David Olson, a Columbia, Md., consultant, said Mr. Owens deserved no particular blame for Fleet's actions.

"There is no doubt that he knows his stuff," Mr. Olson said.

Subscribe Now

Access to authoritative analysis and perspective and our data-driven report series.

14-Day Free Trial

No credit card required. Complete access to articles, breaking news and industry data.