Whether the most recently announced big bank combination thrives or ends up a meal for an even bigger rival depends to some extent on how the tough-talking head of Fleet Financial Group gets along with the affable leader of BankBoston Corp.

Described by those who know him as a "bulldog" who would "tear out your throat if you ask a stupid question," Fleet chairman and chief executive officer Terrence Murray grew up as the hard-driving son of an Irish- American factory worker.

Charles "Chad" Gifford, the chairman and chief executive of BankBoston, meanwhile, was born to run a bank. Mr. Gifford was educated at the elite St. George's School in Newport, R.I., and spent summers on Nantucket. His father headed the former Rhode Island Hospital Trust.

Secure in his position as "the right kind of Bostonian ... a really gracious Brahmin," Mr. Gifford is described by fellow New England bankers, former colleagues, and bank analysts as approachable, honest, laid-back.

Though both executives attended Ivy League colleges-Mr. Murray graduated from Harvard, Mr. Gifford from Princeton-and both are married with large families, that is where the similarities seem to end.

In fact, one source said that when the two talked a year ago about a possible merger, Mr. Gifford ended the discussions because he did not feel comfortable with Mr. Murray. "Chad had indicated some concerns about Terry. He wasn't eager to do the deal because of Terry's style," the source said.

Then the situation changed dramatically. BankBoston suffered losses in the bond market, an embezzlement scandal, and a downturn in morale after the departure of several key executives, including its head of retail banking.

Stock in BankBoston went from $60 per share to $47.0625 at Monday's close as investors worried that problems in Latin America would affect the bank's large operation there.

Though the deal may have been hard for Mr. Gifford to swallow, he and Mr. Murray have at least agreed to create an impressively large financial institution based in the region.

"This deal will keep New England on the map," said Allen Sanborn, the president and chief executive of Robert Morris Associates and formerly a vice chairman at Shawmut National Corp. of Hartford, Conn. "There are so many regions today that don't have a major bank headquartered there-like Los Angeles and the whole state of Texas. This is an extraordinary opportunity to build a global and regional powerhouse in New England."

For Mr. Gifford, who worked hard to keep the New England Patriots football team in Boston, this is no small matter.

"Chad is 'Mr. Boston,'" said bank analyst Gerard Cassidy of Tucker Anthony. "He really symbolizes the city. He comes from a well-known family and has done a very good job of perfecting the Bank of Boston image."

The deal calls for Mr. Gifford to become chairman and chief executive officer of the new Fleet Boston Corp. after Mr. Murray retires from those posts in 2002. By then, Mr. Gifford will be 59, Mr. Murray, 62.

But there have been occasions when chairmen of acquired banks have left the merged company after pledging to stay on in high-profile roles. It happened when First Union Corp. bought CoreStates Financial Corp. last year, and when NationsBank Corp. bought BankAmerica Corp.

Ryan, Beck & Co. analyst Nancy Bush said Mr. Gifford has an ironclad agreement in writing to run the bank when his turn comes. If he leaves the new Fleet Boston, it would be his own choice.

Said one BankBoston alumnus: "I know Chad Gifford extremely well. He's a classy guy. Bank of Boston has had a very inclusive, kind of team-oriented approach and a history of allowing entrepreneurial activity."

Terrence Murray, on the other hand, "was a guy who came from nothing," said Mr. Cassidy. "He had to scrape and scrap all his life. Fleet is symbolic of that."

The new Fleet-dominated company may be a place where Mr. Gifford does not want to survive, his former colleague said.

"These are dramatically different cultures. Chad has a wonderful family. He may decide that running this new bank is not the be-all and end-all."

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