BOSTON -- Lawrence Fish has finally arrived.

The man who struggled in vain to help mm around a savings and loan in Beverly Hills, Calif., and then Bank of New England Corp. in Boston, is now sitting at the helm of one of the Northeast's most successful growth stories.

In just 2 1/2 years as chairman, president, and chief executive of Citizens Financial Group Inc., Mr. Fish has achieved his publicly stated goal of doubling the asset size of the Providence, R.I.-based banking company.

Since 1992, Citizens Financial has gone from $4.2 billion to $9.2 billion of assets and expects to grow by another $1 billion next year upon completion of one of its recent acquisitions.

"We don't know of any bank proportionally that has grown so fast," Mr. Fish said during a recent interview in the bank's posh new Boston offices. (The new digs came with Neworld Bancorp, which Citizens acquired in April.)

This is not a bad position to find oneself in, considering that before coming to Citizens, Mr. Fish seemed always to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. After a stellar 18-year career at Bank of Boston Corp., he was disappointed when the president's post went to Charles Gifford in 1987.

Seeing no future there, Mr. Fish went West, to turn the junk bond-laden Columbia Savings and Loan Association into a traditional bank. But when Mr. Fish arrived at Columbia's Beverly Hills headquarters, he found the executives there had something else in mind. He says they weren't really serious about changing Columbia's strategy.

Later, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. asked Mr. Fish to resuscitate Bank of New England Corp. Regulators and analysts praised Mr. Fish's efforts at the foundering bank, and acknowledge that its fate was sealed before he got there. In July 1991, it was sold to Providence-based Fleet Financial Group.

Mr. Fish got his big chance a year later, when the Royal Bank of Scotland Group asked him to run the U.S. unit it had purchased four years earlier. Mr. Fish presented the Edinburgh-based, $60 billion asset-bank with a plan for Citizens Financial which would boost the subsidiary's asset size to $10 billion by 1995.

Seven acquisitions later, Mr. Fish has finally proven himself.

"We feel very lucky we got started when we did because it would be impossible today," he says now. After all, few banks are left for sale in Rhode Island or in the small neighboring Massachusetts towns where Mr. Fish has done most of his acquiring.

The point of the acquisition binge was to position Citizens as a super community bank in several Rhode Island and Massachusetts markets. The million dollar question: Can a bank with $10 billion in assets survive being squeezed between the remaining community banks, with their special access to local customers, and the national financial service supermarkets that interstate banking is sure to create?

One advantage for Citizens is that it is enthusiastically supported by its Scottish parent. "We defined the strategy, they certainly endorsed it," Mr. Fish says, referring to his higher-ups in Edinburgh.

With its July acquisition of $1 billion-asset Old Stone Federal Savings Bank in Providence, Citizens tied Fleet, its crosstown rival, for first place in Rhode Island market share. Citizens and Fleet can now each boast 35% of the state's total deposits.

Because of the intense competition for Old Stone's assets, the room where Citizen's bidding strategy was worked out became known as the "nuclear bomb" room by executives and staffers. With the fervor of generals planning a major military campaign, Mr. Fish and his aides figured out numerous possible bids for Old Stone, a failed thrift taken over by the Resolution Trust Corp. in 1993. Rival suitors included a Bank of Boston subsidiary and Shawmut National Corp.

Citizens' success in the war for Old Stone "defined Rhode Island forever," Mr. Fish insists. Shawmut, which has dual bases in Hartford, Conn., and Boston, will never have more than 3% market share in Rhode Island, he adds, glowing.

Inspired by the memory of Fleet gobbling $15.2 billion in assets and 330 branches throughout New England after acquiring the Bank of New England, Mr. Fish went after Old Stone with a no-lose intensity. "I better appreciate the extent to which a single transaction can help define a company for a long time," he says. "It's always better to he number one in your home state."

With the Old Stone merger, Mr. Fish believes he can now compete with the biggest banks in New England.

Rhode Island community bankers have mixed feelings about the market share breakdown in the nation's smallest state. They call it a monopoly for Citizens and $48 billion-asset Fleet.

"When I saw that the Federal government gave Citizens Old Stone, I said "what they really did was limit the competitive nature of Rhode Island," says Joseph Laplume, president and chief executive officer of $19.9 million-asset Pierbank, which is based in the small beach resort of Narragansett.

Mr. Laplume, who worked for Citizens before Mr. Fish began his tenure, insists that the super community bank philosophy won't fly there. "When a bank gets to be a certain size, as much as [executives] think they're servicing smaller customers, just by nature they tend to gravitate to the larger customers. I don't think it's an intent, it's just a natural thing," he said.

Joseph Kirby, president, chairman and chief executive officer of $475 million-asset Washington Trust Co. of Westerly, says there's plenty of room for him and Mr. Fish. While Mr. Fish boasts that he works personally with customers who take out loans of $5 million or more, Mr. Kirby makes his living loaning an average $500,000 to $600,000.

"I think [Citizens is] trying to be a community bank, and I think Fleet is trying too, but a $500,000 loan isn't very meaningful to them," says Mr. Kirby, whose bank also bid on Old Stone.

For his part, Mr. Fish believes there is plenty of room for everybody. "We never wanted to be the New England Bank," Mr. Fish explains. "We wanted to be. No. 1 or No. 2 in market share wherever we are and have tremendous density."

Mr. Fish says there are 14 banks across the country pursuing exactly the same super community banking strategy as Citizens. He closely follows the product offerings and strategies of these peers, and feels confident that Citizens will not only remain independent but will also have success capturing the community banking market.

"Many banks have targeted the affluent customer as their No. 1 priority. Larry Fish is going after the middle market, the blue-collar worker," says Gerard Cassidy, an analyst at Hancock Equity Investors Services.

The key to success in the short term is stability, says Mr. Fish. He does not have to worry about being sold out, as analysts and observers agree that Royal Bank of Scoff and is interested in hanging on to Citizens. Meanwhile, at least three of Mr. Fish's competitors do not have that luxury.

Fleet chairman Terrence Murray has wreaked havoc on Wall Street by publicly stating he is interested in a merger of equals. Rumors are flying about, the most popular being a collaboration of some kind between Mr. Murray and J. Carter Bacot, the president, chairman, and CEO of Bank of New York Corp. Mother potential merger partner for Fleet, according to speculation, is San Francisco-based BankAmerica Corp.

Shawmut and Boston-based BayBanks Inc. are also viewed as takeover candidates.

Mr. Fish says if Fleet does pursue a merger of equals, it will give him ample time to pick up depositors alienated by having to deal with the resulting mega-bank.

In the long run, Mr. Fish says he will compete easily on the community bank level with any national franchises that may materialize.

He has no intention of offering jumbo mortgages, mutual funds, or insurance -- products those companies will no doubt offer. He plans to compete "almost exclusively as your friendly neighbor."

Meanwhile, Pierbank's Mr. Laplume refuses to throw in the towel. But he can't ignore the trend toward consolidation, especially now that interstate banking has been signed into law. He says, "I spoke to a president of a major bank the other day. He looked at me and said 'I'm sure Pierbank will do well under your tutelage, but is there really a purpose for a Pierbank? No.'"

When Mr. Fish isn't busy integrating his acquisitions, he is watching the competition to see how the passage of interstate banking legislation will affect them. Mr. Cassidy, the analyst, says that's a good strategy. Citizens "needs to take some time to integrate six cultures, six operating systems," he says, referring to the acquisitions Mr. Fish has made this year alone.

But Citizens won't stay on the sidelines for long. An inexpensive but healthy thrift looking for a buyout? A commercial bank hospitable to an offer?

Mr. Fish won't rule out the possibility.


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