Linda K. Fabel, executive vice president of technology at Magna Group Inc. in St. Louis, doesn't stand still for long.

Ms. Fabel, 49, was lured away from International Business Machines Corp. last November to head a whirlwind consolidation of computer systems at Magna, which has $3.7 billion in assets and 86 banking locations in Missouri and Illinois.

"I'm always looking for new challenges and the consolidation at Magna has been one," Ms. Fabel said. "As soon as we get this under control, I'll be looking for new challenges."

The company, growing rapidly through acquisitions, owns eight banks. Previously, half ran their own computer systems and the others had relied on an outside service provider, Systematics Financial Services Inc.

The systems consolidation project was completed this month, taking less than a year. Wall Street analysts say the effort will contribute two-thirds of projected annual savings of $18 million at Magna, which doubled its size with the acquisition of Landmark Bancshares Inc. last December.

Ms. Fabel is widely credited with changing the culture of data processing, making it responsive to Magna's business units.

Before her arrival, Magna Data Systems, the automation unit, was known for dragging its feet in developing new systems. A project to automate the opening of new accounts had been on hold for almost four years. Ms. Fabel pushed the project through in less than a year.

Called in Tune with Bankers

Ms. Fabel "thinks like a banker," said Thomas E. Holloway, president of Magna Bank of St. Clair County, a $1.25 billion-asset affiliate.

"We used to sit down with a sheaf of papers with product descriptions and riffle through them with the customer," he said. Now customers can see what they are buying on a personal computer screen.

"The first time I met her, at a meeting of all the bank presidents, she came up to me and asked, |How do you make money?'" Mr. Holloway recalled. "I had to stop and take a swig of Coke before I could answer."

Ms. Fabel studied mathematics at East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C., then taught high school physics and math in North Carolina.

Prepared to Work Hard

Frustrated by students' lack of motivation and a pay policy that rewarded tenure instead of merit, she took an offer in 1967 from International Business Machines Corp. in Charlotte. "I liked the idea of getting credit for being willing to work harder," she said.

At IBM, she rose quickly from a systems engineering job into marketing midrange computers. She climbed an IBM divisional ladder from Orlando, Fla., to Atlanta, to White Plains, N.Y.

In 1979, William Drummey, then an IBM regional manager, tapped Ms. Fabel to take over a Milford, Conn., branch office with sagging morale and sales. Within a year, revenue began to grow, and the morale of the 110 employees improved.

"The whole thing was a mess, and she fixed it," said Mr. Drummey, now an executive vice president at Legent Corp., Vienna, Va. "And she kept it fixed."

In 1989 she became head of marketing for the St. Louis area. When Magna came calling, Ms. Fabel said her initial reaction was to say no. But after two years in St. Louis, she and her husband, Bill Fabel, who retired from IBM in 1987, had begun to view the city as home. IBM would have relocated them within a year. A generous salary offer sealed the Magna decision.

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