As leading consumer bankers gathered in Florida, the talk inevitably centered on the mergers that have reshaped the industry this year.

Most of this year's biggest deals have closed, and banks are settling down to the task of integrating businesses and cultures, speakers said during last week's Consumer Bankers Association convention in Aventura, which drew 250 people.

Yet conference speakers saw some signs of strain as they looked to NationsBank Corp.'s merger with BankAmerica Corp. and Citicorp's merger with Travelers Group for clues about how the deals will play out.

"The recent management changes at BankAmerica are not necessarily a harbinger of harmony ahead," said James J. McDermott Jr., chairman of Keefe, Bruyette & Woods Inc. He said merging companies will increasingly be judged on their managerial skills, as well as their marketing prowess.

The keynote speaker, Citigroup co-chairman John S. Reed, flew in from a management retreat at the Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va, where the groundwork was being laid for the staff shake-up that was announced late Sunday. (See article on page 1.)

Mr. Reed made no secret of his frustrations with the poor third-quarter showing of its newly integrated corporate banking business, which includes Salomon Smith Barney. "I really wish my job were only to run the consumer sides of our business," he said.

Even so, he was generally upbeat about the prospects for the new company, declaring: "These companies are going to come together. There is not going to be any problem."

Problems or not, observers said, Citigroup is shaping up as a compelling model for financial services companies, with its combination of consumer, wholesale, and investment banking and insurance.

"My guess is it's being discussed in every boardroom of every bank and every insurance company," said Roger E. Dunker, chief executive officer of KeyCorp Insurance Management Group, a unit of KeyCorp in Cleveland.

Mergers are having their effect on the conference's organizers too. Like most banking trade groups, the Consumer Bankers Association has seen some decline in its membership, said the group's new chairman, Craig L. Kelly. He said seeking out new members-including nonbanks-will be a priority for 1999.

The uncertainty brought about by mergers is hitting pretty close to home for Mr. Kelly, group executive vice president for strategic marketing at Crestar Financial Corp. He said his position has been up in the air since July 20, when the Richmond, Va., banking company announced that it had agreed to be bought by SunTrust Banks Inc. of Atlanta.

Consumer bankers are clearly looking to insurance sales as a new frontier. Mr. Dunker of KeyCorp said banks are in a good position to beat insurance companies at their own game.

"Sixty-five to 70% of people do not have an insurance agent," he said. Insurance companies "are now playing defense, not offense."

Mr. Reed said that since teaming up with Travelers, he has been struck by how much potential there is in insurance. Automobile insurance, in particular, "is a great need when you're younger. And no one ever comes to you and says, 'Let's take a look at your premiums.'"

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