It was in the small town of Jackson, Mich., that Catherine P. Bessant gave her first speech. Coached by her father, a public speaking teacher, the 5-year-old held forth on the nation's space program.

Twenty-nine years later, Ms. Bessant is still talking up a storm. As a senior vice president and community reinvestment officer at NationsBank, she is perhaps the most outspoken person in her increasingly visible field.

When congressional panels hold hearings on reinvestment, Ms. Bessant is often at the witness table. When community groups want to hear the views of a bank, Ms. Bessant is there in a flash. And when reporters want quotes, they know where to call.

"The only element that makes me different from anybody else is that I don't get afraid of the speaking," she says. "I've done so much of it that getting the words out is not a concern."

Make no mistake - Ms. Bessant's brand of talk isn't idle chatter. She wields considerable power within NationsBank, reporting directly to president Kenneth D. Lewis. And she goes about her work with true competitive zeal, demanding better and better performance from NationsBank under the Community Reinvestment Act.

Her efforts have helped NationsBank pull off one of the most dramatic expansions in banking history: since buying C&S/Sovran Corp. in 1991, the Charlotte, N.C.-based company has made eight acquisitions in seven states.

Along the way, Ms. Bessant may well have established herself as the prototypical CRA officer. Observers say that others would do well to follow her lead - especially in matters of style.

Ms. Bessant's manner of speaking - clear and direct, and with a hint of a southern twang - has helped win friends among regulators, activists, and observers.

"The thing that makes Cathy unique is not the CRA program, but the talking," said Jo Ann Barefoot, president of Barefoot, Marrinan, & Associates. "It is extremely good for the industry for Nations to have such an articulate and thoughtful player."

Warren Traiger, a New York banking attorney, said that Ms. Bessant's frequent appearance in news stories has been especially helpful. Over the past two years, she has been quoted or mentioned about two dozen times in this newspaper, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and the Charlotte Observer.

"Regulators read the newspapers," Mr. Traiger said. "When a regulator sees the good things you have done, you start off on a positive note."

Certainly, regulators have been approving of NationsBank's community reinvestment efforts. Five of its regional operating units are rated "satisfactory" and four are rated "outstanding."

That's not good enough for Ms. Bessant, however.

"It would be hard for me to shoot for second place," said the one-time competitive swimmer and championship debater. In fact, she says, a friend just gave her a T-shirt that reads, "Second place is the first loser."

Two months ago, to get closer to regulatory and legislative happenings, Ms. Bessant moved to Washington from NationsBank's Charlotte headquarters.

One of her top priorities at the moment is "Blueprint 2000," a community revinvestment summit that NationsBank is hosting in Washington next week. Co-sponsored by area community groups, 400 bankers, activists, and government officials will evaluate current national development strategies and try to come up with new ideas.

In another project, she is trying to harness computer modeling to identify more customers - a tactic already used by other parts of NationsBank.

"We'll be marketing in a focused way in an effort to generate loan volume in areas we haven't been able to reach before," she said.

Like all CRA officers, Ms. Bessant spends much of her time tending to emergencies, like product snafus, new legislation, and unfavorable studies. On a shelf in her office sits a fire helmet presented by her employees. "Thanks for teaching us to fight the fires," it reads.

Unlike many CRA officers, however, she enjoys the benefits of both a sizable staff - 160, up from just four people five years ago - and firm support from top management. In addition to reporting to Mr. Lewis, she speaks frequently with Hugh L. McColl Jr., NationsBank's celebrated chairman.

"It wouldn't be possible to report to a higher level in our company," Ms. Bessant said.

A graduate of the University of Michigan, she took charge of NationsBank's CRA effort five years ago, after two years as a vice president at First Union National Bank. Before that, Ms. Bessant worked for five years in commercial lending at Interfirst Bank Dallas, a predecessor of NationsBank.

During her tenure as CRA chief, the company's approach to reinvestment has changed greatly.

The bank used to have CRA goals that were set on a corporate level and then implemented locally. That worked, she said, when NationsBank was one of the few banks with reinvestment goals.

But now that community reinvestment is more of a competitive area in banking, plans need to be designed specifically for the community, she said.

Banks now have to prove to communities that they are genuinely interested in their economy, people, and homes.

Ultimately, Ms. Bessant says, credibility is what her job is all about. In order to succeed in community reinvestment, a bank must demonstrate to both regulators and community leaders that it is sincerely committed to the work.

"If people think you're going to say no, all you get to see are the dog deals that they think no one else will do anyway," Ms. Bessant said.

It is this attitude that won Ms. Bessant regulators' notice. Stephen Cross, deputy comptroller for compliance at the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, said he remembers when, in August 1993, Ms. Bessant testified at the first public congressional CRA hearing. She was one of the first bankers to speak out on the issue. At that hearing, Mr. Cross said, Ms. Bessant explained how CRA has helped NationsBank expand.

Ms. Bessant admits that people will probably always quarrel with NationsBank on the way it does business. But, she said, "It's hard for anybody to doubt our willingness to discuss the issues."

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