It is natural to question whether a high-performing team can persevere when an accomplished coach moves on.

But the merger advisory group at CS First Boston contends it is well positioned to sustain the momentum established under longtime director Richard Thornburgh, who recently was moved upstairs to the post of chief financial officer.

"Dick built a strong and deep team," asserted Michael Martin, new co- head of the group, managing director and an eight-year veteran of the company. "My sense is, clients are convinced they have a relationship with the financial institutions group at CS First Boston, as opposed to a relationship with only one person."

A lot is riding on the management transition. So far in 1995, the merger advisory team at CS First Boston has negotiated four major transactions worth $4.1 billion, a showing that ranks the unit third among all bank advisers, according to Securities Data Co.

Mr. Martin is counting on a number of strengths to sustain that trend. Not only is his team largely intact, but CS First Boston continues to make client inroads through its robust underwriting operations, and through the reputation of its top banking analyst, Thomas Hanley.

Perhaps equally important, CS First Boston has witnessed a transition in its client profile. Partly by chance and partly by design, the firm has blended a number of buyers and independence-minded clients into its consultancy, boosting chances for return engagements.

Although CS First Boston's financial institutions group led the pack of Wall Street bank advisers in 1992 and 1993, there was one problem: most of its clients were disappearing through mergers.

The former clients of CS First Boston that were merged out of existence include C&S/Sovran Financial Corp., Security Pacific Corp., and South Carolina National Corp.

This erosion did not help matters in 1994. Relationships with major banks did not pay off as well as in past years. And some clients turned to small transactions for which advisers were not needed.

The picture has brightened considerably this year, however, as alliances with surviving institutions paid off in spades.

In its largest coups, CS First Boston represented National Australia Bank in its $1.5 billion purchase of Michigan National Corp., and it advised U.S. Bancorp in its $1.6 billion deal for West One Bancorp.

The unit also advised Keycorp in its $325 million buyout of AutoFinance Group Inc. And it counseled the restructuring H.F. Ahmanson & Co. in the $660 million sale of its New York branch system to GreenPoint Financial Corp.

On top of all that, the group advised Compass Bancshares' directors in their battle with dissident shareholder and former chairman Harry Brock, who campaigned to sell the company against the board's wishes. A proxy fight settled in the company's favor.

Only Salomon Brothers and Morgan Stanley & Co. have done better than CS First Boston so far this year. And both of those firms participated in the largest deal so far this year - Fleet Financial Gruop's $3.5 billion takeover of Shawmut National Corp.

Though it is too early to tell whether the departure of Mr. Thornburgh, who has led the group since 1989, will dampen the effectiveness of CS First Boston's merger advisory team, at least one prominent client is quite open in saying that the doors remain open.

"We worked very closely with Mike Martin on the West One transaction and were very pleased with the work the firm did, and we see no reason why we wouldn't continue to do business with them in the future," said Donald Bowler, senior vice president at U.S. Bancorp, which retained CS First Boston as adviser for the West One purchase.

One high-profile engagement potentially on CS First Boston's horizon is with First Security Corp. Mr. Thornburgh is said to be very close to the officers of the Utah bank, which has become a hot property in the wake of the deal for neighboring West One.

"I don't want to prejudge, but I think they feel they will continue to get the same level of service that they have in the past," Mr. Martin said of First Security. "And of course Dick will always be available to talk to them about strategic matters."

Mr. Martin believes a period of major restructuring is about to commence in the industry. He foresees a wave of larger, interstate mergers that will fundamentally change the nature of banking.

Some deals may be sparked by aggressive tactics, he said, such as "bear hug" letters that potential buyers send to targets resistant to selling.

Mr. Martin is joined as co-head by Jonathan Plutzik, a managing director who will continue his focus on insurance companies.

CS First Boston represented Zurich Insurance in purchasing Kemper Insurance and Home Insurance, and the group is currently advising Metropolitan Life in its strategic discussion with New England Mutual.

"We are very lucky," said Mr. Plutzik said of the group, "it is not as if we had Dick (Thornburgh) and a couple of junior people supporting him."

Mr. Martin has been with the firm for eight years, and previously worked at Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz.

The executive briefly defected to Morgan Stanley last year but returned after a few weeks. He says only that he underestimated the resources CS First Boston provided him.

Mr. Martin will oversee four other managing directors. Jack McSpadden, who has traditionally focused on Southeastern banks, will now concentrate on Latin American financial companies.

John Adams covers the New England and Middle Atlantic banks, while Michael Maron covers the West Coast banks and thrifts.

And Philip Ryan, who has been in London for the past year focusing on Scandinavian accounts, will return and focus on the Midwest and Southeast.

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