William A. Fitzgerald takes over as chairman of America's Community Bankers this week, at perhaps the most tumultuous time in the trade group's seven-year history.

The group's first and only president, Paul A. Schosberg, is resigning. A proposed merger with the American Bankers Association has collapsed, and Congress is about to deal the industry a crushing defeat by barring commercial firms from buying thrifts.

But Mr. Fitzgerald, 61, chairman and chief executive officer at Commercial Federal Corp. in Omaha, is hardly lamenting. In fact, he is boldly predicting that America's Community Bankers will become the trade group of choice for all community banks -- not just thrifts -- in the next century.

"I think that over the next 12 to 18 months, there are going to be a lot of financial institutions that are going to see ACB as an organization for change," said Mr. Fitzgerald, who will officially assume the one-year post on Wednesdayat the trade group's annual convention in Orlando.

In a recent interview, Mr. Fitzgerald talked about creating an "inclusive" trade group that cares less about an institution's charter than its commitment to community banking. In his view, banks and thrifts compete less with each other than with "the uninsured financial services" -- such as Merrill Lynch and Co. and American Express -- that he said "are picking off our very best customers."

"Our mission should be to get as broad a charter possible for all FDIC-insured institutions," Mr. Fitzgerald said. "Not all banks will use all these new powers, but they need to have the opportunity."

How successful the trade group is at attracting commercial banks members' remains to be seen. But observers say ACB could not have a better salesman than Mr. Fitzgerald, who has led Commercial Federal's transformation from a small, local thrift to full-service financial services company with $13 billion of assets.

"Bill is a very strategic thinker, and that has been demonstrated by the changes he's brought to his own institution," said E. Lee Beard, chief executive officer at First Federal Bank of Hazleton, Pa., and outgoing ACB chairman.

Not that the transition has been entirely smooth. Just last week, Mr. Fitzgerald found himself defending Commercial Federal against investors who were calling for the thrift to find a buyer. While generally supporting the company's efforts to become more bank-like, they are unhappy with Commercial Federal's deteriorating efficiency ratio and declining return on equity.

Mr. Fitzgerald, however, maintains that the company is going through growing pains.

"In the next few quarters, we know we have to get things accomplished," he said in a conference call with analysts last week.

Among Mr. Fitzgerald's first responsibilities as ACB chairman will be breaking in the new president, who is expected to be named today. Mr. Schosberg has held the position since the trade group was created in 1992.

He also plans to hit the road to talk up the trade group's recently completed strategic plan to make sure "they buy into what we're doing."

In surveying members and nonmembers, ACB found that most bankers view lobbying as a trade group's most important function. With that in mind, the association plans to boost its $13 million operating budget by roughly 15% to devote even more resources to affect regulatory and legislative policy.

"Seventy-five percent of the value of what we do for our association is advocacy," said Mr. Fitzgerald, who did his share of lobbying at the state level while chairman of the Heartland Bankers Association earlier this decade.

One issue the trade group is likely to push is the repeal of a law that bars banks and thrifts from paying interest on business checking accounts. With many banks getting around the ban with sweep accounts, Mr. Fitzgerald said, "why do we have that regulation at all?"

Another is the merger of the Bank Insurance Fund and the Savings Association Insurance Fund, a proposal that commercial bank trade groups oppose.

Mr. Schosberg added that the long-range plan calls for the trade group to go beyond Congress and the bank regulators to strengthen relations with agencies such as the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Financial Accounting Standards Board. The SEC, for example, plays a significant role in regulating stock repurchases and mutual-to-stock conversions, while the FASB sets the guidelines for accounting for mergers.

Of course, all the lobbying in the world cannot ensure victory. America's Community Bankers has been fighting for years to preserve the unitary thrift charter, which allows commercial firms to own thrifts. But fierce opposition from commercial banks led Congress to abolish the charter in the financial modernization bill on the verge of enactment.

"That bill places limitations on what the banking industry can do," Mr. Fitzgerald said. "It runs at odds with what America's Community Bankers is trying to do."

Indeed, merger discussions between the ABA and ACB broke down in part because philosophical differences over the unitary thrift charter. And though Congress has apparently resolved that issue once and for all, it appears unlikely that the rival trade groups will rekindle negotiations anytime soon.

"I would hope our membership looks upon that as a venture that just didn't pan out," Mr. Fitzgerald said.

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