Gary Washington is financially bilingual. With fellow bankers he speaks of balance sheets and profitability; with community activists he talks of corporate responsibility and civic pride.

To succeed at his new job as senior vice president at LaSalle National Bank, he'll have to maintain that fluency. Mr. Washington, 35, is the head of community reinvestment activities at the Chicago-based bank -- a job that LaSalle scrambled to create after regulators criticized its community lending practices.

The lead bank of LaSalle National Corp., a subsidiary of Amsterdam-based ABN Amro Holdings PLC, received a "needs to improve" rating in January from the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency. As a result, it was forced to delay its plans to buy Chicago's Talman Home Federal Savings and Loan.

Quick Action

Although the transaction was eventually completed, LaSalle moved quickly to comply better with the Community Reinvestment Act. Mr. Washington was recruited in May from his post as vice president of Cleveland's Ameritrust Development Bank, a subsidiary of Ameritrust Corp. (The Ohio bank has since been merged into Society Corp.)

Mr. Washington said his background prepared him well for the difficult task of community lending in a big city. For him, he said, serving the lower-income community does not conflict with serving his employer.

LaSalle's success "is tied to the future success of Chicago," he said. "It is incumbent upon major corporations and businesses to play a substantial role in planning that future."

Eye on Credit Quality

But Mr. Washington, who supervises a handful of employees, also said that his company should not lose money directly on its efforts. "The objective should be to make these loans consistent with standard banking principles."

The Oberlin College graduate developed his community banking philosophy at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, where he concentrated on the financial impact of public policy.

With his newly minted master's degree, he took a job with Cleveland's Department of Community Development, then moved quickly to a post with the charitable foundation of BP America;s Standard Oil Co. as a senior contributions analyst.

The Ameritrust job followed. It was there that Mr. Washington learned the nitty-gritty of the Community Reinvestment Act.

One of his first tasks at LaSalle is to ensure that every corporate gesture toward serving its community -- from direct loans to seminars about savings -- is well documented. One of the chief complaints from the Comptroller's office was about LaSalle's CRA program was its lack of records documenting its activities.

Help for Small Businesses

Mr. Washington said he hopes he can diversify his unit's activities across many socioeconomic levels.

He wants to go beyond the standard residential mortgage, construction, and rehab loans to active involvement in developing small businesses. And he wants to get the company's corporate lenders to actively support his efforts.

"Just as a loan to a company with $2 billion in annual sales in low- and moderate-income areas is important, so is a loan that enables a company with $50 million to continue its growth," he said.

In the more traditional CRA lending area, LaSalle National has closed $13 million of residential real estate loans in the past two years.

"I think one of the things that we are attempting is to define community development very broadly," said Mr. Washington. "Any commercial loan that we make in Chicago is significant in terms of the city's economy and its future. I think the total picture is looking at the health of your entire community."

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