For more than a decade, Debra McGinty-Poteet thrived on running one of the largest mutual fund businesses owned by a bank.

But after leaving BankAmerica Corp. amid a shake-up in its funds division last November, she was ready for a new challenge.

Now Ms. McGinty-Poteet, 41, says she's found just that at San Diego- based North American Trust Co., which she joined as executive vice president and chief operating officer Feb. 18.

"Finally, I'm an entrepreneur," she said in a telephone interview last week. The company, which administers $3.2 billion in retirement plan assets, caters to an elite clientele that includes law firms, high- technology companies, and medical practices.

The business North American specializes in is known by a deceptively bland label: "Record keeping and administration for qualified plans."

The company does indeed have a mechanical dimension-processing and tracking voluminous financial transactions for hundreds of 401(k) and other retirement plans. But it's mostly about responding to the needs of retirement plan sponsors and participants, and that, according to Ms. McGinty-Poteet, is where it gets exciting.

"We have very demanding clients," she said. "Some of the top law firms in the country use us for 401(k) plans," and they expect the kind of tailored service that a Fortune 500 corporation would command.

What kind of services? "They expect their 401(k) to act like a certain discount brokerage in San Francisco," Ms. McGinty-Poteet said, in a sly reference to Charles Schwab & Co. "We're one of the few providers that can actually do that."

For instance, she said, North American can help retirement plan sponsors assemble a wide array of investment options, create trading accounts for plan participants, provide maximum flexibility on loans against retirement assets, and offer customers daily valuation of their accounts.

North American executives say flexible state trust powers and a parent company with abundant resources-London Pacific Group Ltd., formerly known as Govett & Co.-help to differentiate the company from other retirement services specialists.

"We've truly had the ability to be a marketing company, to figure out how to adapt products" to clients' needs, said L. Mark Fingerlin, North American's president and chief executive officer. Indeed, he said, one steady source of business has been referrals from large mutual fund companies of "clients who want very specialized handling."

In her newly created job as second-in-command to Mr. Fingerlin, Ms. McGinty-Poteet will help direct an expansion into personal trust services and asset management for nonprofits and foundations. The vehicle for this drive: Danielson Trust Co. of San Diego, which North American acquired in December.

For example, Mr. Fingerlin said, North American should be able to sell investment services to highly paid retirement plan clients who have "maxed out"-that is, they have made the maximum annual contribution to their retirement plan that is permitted by law.

The opportunity to work for a smaller, more focused company was an attraction for Ms. McGinty- Poteet, who says she turned down several offers that would have put her back in "a large corporate environment."

Although she left BankAmerica on friendly terms, she acknowledges that she sometimes found herself "struggling to be heard" there.

As senior vice president and managing director of Bank of America Funds Management, she oversaw the development and operation of BankAmerica's proprietary mutual funds from a base in Los Angeles. The business was successful, but the reality was that "mutual funds are not a core strategy" for BankAmerica, she said.

Ms. McGinty-Poteet got her start in mutual funds by launching an offshore fund business for Security Pacific National Bank in 1986, quickly amassing $1.2 billion.

When Security Pacific was acquired by BankAmerica in 1992, she was tapped to oversee the merger of her bank's robust fund business with BankAmerica's much smaller operation. By the time she left BankAmerica last fall, the Pacific Horizon Funds had grown to $13.5 billion of assets.

She will have a chance to put her skills in launching mutual funds to work at North American: the company has already obtained Securities and Exchange Commission approval to start a money market portfolio.

Ms. McGinty-Poteet, who lives in Glendale, Calif., with her husband and three daughters, said witnessing the maturation of the fund industry over the past 10 years helped her decide to sign on with North American.

"Mutual funds are becoming more and more of a commodity. What really counts is who controls the client," she said. And North American, which has thousands of well-heeled retirement plan participants on its roster, is in a strong position to grow, because "we literally are the ones who control the client."

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