MARK OMAN President Norwest Mortgage, Des Moines

Mark Oman slipped into the mortgage business in 1984 as a behind-the-scenes financial repairman. He did so well that he's now running the nation's biggest, most-talked-about mortgage lending operation.

Mr. Oman, 37, is president of Norwest Corp.'s mortgage banking subsidiary, which employs about 3,700 people nationwide and wrote a stunning $13.2 billion in home loans during 1991. Just a few years earlier, the Des Moines-based unit didn't even rank among the top 25 U.S. mortgage lenders.

The rapid ascent is impressive for a company that lay in shambles in 1984. It had suffered huge losses when a strategy to protect earnings from swings in interest rates backfired. To analyze the crisis and rebuild the unit, the parent company called in a team of executives from its finance unit - including Mr. Oman.

Starting as chief financial officer, he rose to president by 1989. In so doing, Mr. Oman completely bypassed the traditional career path in mortgage banking, which begins with a long stint as a loan officer on the street.

He began his career as a bean counter. After graduating from the University of Northern Iowa with a degree in accounting, he went to work for Haskin & Sells, now part of Deloitte Touche, for more than two years. Then he moved into internal auditing and treasury operations at Dial Corp., a big Des Moines finance company that Norwest acquired in 1982.

Such financial experience has become increasingly valuable as the mortgage securities market has mushroomed and regulations have become more complex.

But as Mr. Oman is well aware, numbers remain just part of the mortgage game. "Fundamentally, mortgage banking is a people business, it's a sales business," he says.

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