More Bankers Skipping ABA's Gathering

WASHINGTON - Robert R. Peacock, chairman of Ramapo Bank in Wayne, N.J., has been attending the annual conventions of the American Bankers Association for more years than he cares to remember. Since 1970, he said, he hasn't missed one.

Until this year, that is. When the ABA's annual convention opens in San Francisco on Saturday, Mr. Peacock, a member of the trade association's leadership council, will be home in New Jersey.

Timing Called Inappropriate

"New Jersey banks are under stress today, and I don't think it's an appropriate time for me to be going out to the West Coast," he said.

He is not alone.

The ABA convention, once the premier social and political event in the banking industry, has been in decline for years. But this year, attendance appears headed for an all-time low as bank chief executive officers across the country assess the economic climate - as well as their own needs - and come to the same conclusion as Mr. Peacock.

"We'll have a good contingent going, but nothing like what we've had in past years," said John B. Bowers Jr., executive vice president of the Maryland Bankers Association, an ABA affiliate.

"If you go back five years, the group going would be two to three times larger," he said. "Earnings are a big part of the reason."

This year, the ABA expects 4,000 people to attend the convention. That includes bankers, vendors, and others who deal with banks, as well as spouses. Last year, when the trade association met in Orlando, Fla., 4,500 were present and in 1986, when the ABA last gathered in San Francisco, 8,600 attended.

"I doubt it will ever return to the same size it was," said Donald Ogilvie, executive vice president of the ABA. "It used to be primarily a correspondent bankers convention, a place for peer networking."

Change in the Business

But correspondent banking is a different kind of business then it was in years past, when fewer interbank services were offered and personal relationships were much more important. That's one reason why a number of big convention events have been dropped, including the sprawling reception that Manufacturers Hanover Corp. sponsored annually until 1988.

"Now there's much more emphasis on being able to learn something," Mr. Ogilvie added. "This year's program is very heavy on compliance sessions."

Big correspondent banks don't see the need to send their chief executive officers to stroke downstream institutions, and many of those without business reasons for attending can ill-afford the time away from the office.

As a result, the army of big-bank chief executive officers that once descended upon the ABA convention in force will be largely absent this year.

Citicorp's John Reed and Continental Bank's Thomas Theobold will be absent, as well as First Chicago's Barry Sullivan.

No Decision Made

John Medlin, chairman of Winston-Salem, N.C.-based Wachovia Corp., said through a spokesman he has not yet decided whether to attend.

But if some bankers are staying home, others still see it as an opportunity to do business, and for some traditional reasons.

One who will attend is Chase Manhattan Bank's chief executive officer, Thomas R. Labrecque. Mr. Labrecque, said a bank spokesman, will be meeting with many of the banks with whom Chase maintains correspondent relationships.

The same is true for First Interstate Bank, said Harold Meyerman, president and chief executive officer of First Interstate Ltd., the Los Angeles-based banking concern's wholesale bank.

"In this environment, everybody's so expense-conscious," he said. "And the ABA convention allows you to see a lot of clients at once. Our corporate clients go for the same reason - it's a more efficient use of their time."

Audience Has Grown Serious

Years ago, Mr. Meyerman said, the convention "was very much a social function, an opportunity to get away and have a good time at corporate expense. But that's not true anymore. The people who attend now are pretty serious."

First Interstate, he said, takes a rigorous approach to planning for the convention and evaluating results afterward.

"The only people that would come along are those with a significant number of clients who would be there," he said. Each submits a report of what they did and who they spoke to, "so we can track the payoff" over the following year.

Others attending are more concerned about policy issues.

"We have some terribly important issues facing us on the federal legislative level," said Harold Stones, executive vice president of the Kansas Bankers Association.

"There are an awful lot of questions about the legislation and this is the best place to ask them," he added.

The ABA's Mr. Ogilvie continues to see the trade association's annual convention as an important event for the industry, but one whose role is evolving.

The trade group's senior officers noted a few years ago that, even as attendance was steadily dropping at the annual convention, bankers were stepping up their presence at more narrowly-focused events, such as the ABA's annual technology conference.

"We commissioned a blue-ribbon panel of bankers to take a look at it a few years ago, and they said, |absolutely, there will always be a core group that needs a session like this,'" he said.

PHOTO : Harold Meyerman First Interstate

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