Robert Higgins knows he must perform.

With many on Wall Street questioning whether $86 billion-asset Fleet Financial Group Inc. can remain independent, Mr. Higgins, its newly appointed president and chief operating officer, says his job is to increase revenue-and quickly.

"This company has been absorbed in consolidations and conversions for the last two or three years," the 51-year-old executive said in a recent interview. "We've said it would take 18 months for the mist to clear, and now it has. The Street's perception of Fleet is going to change as we deliver the goods in 1997."

Mr. Higgins said the progress has begun. Fleet reported an 18% increase in first-quarter net income, to $311 million. Return on equity jumped to 18.82% from 16.96% a year earlier.

The improvement, said Mr. Higgins, came from lower expenses and higher fee income.

"Our efficiency ratio has dropped below that magic 60% number," he added. "We think we can sustain or lower that going forward."

Mr. Higgins said his strategy for the rest of 1997 is designed to move Fleet beyond its current consolidation phase. The bank has finished absorbing the operations of Shawmut National Corp., which it bought in December 1995, and has set a July 31 target for completing the integration of National Westminster Bancorp.'s retail operations, which it bought in April 1996.

The strategy includes developing products and services, investing in employee and management training, and spending more on technology.

Until Mr. Higgins' appointment in April, Fleet had not had a chief operating officer for 15 years. A 26-year veteran of the bank, Mr. Higgins joined a newly created office of the chairman that includes three vice chairmen and a chief administrative officer, H. Jay Sarles.

"I think it's the right time for the company," said Mr. Higgins. He said the management structure is designed around functions and coordinated in a way that delivers specific benefits to customers.

That orchestration "is what a chief operating officer does," he said. "And that's what I view as my primary mission."

At the time of Mr. Higgins' appointment as president, industry watchers said Fleet's chairman, Terrence Murray, had been under pressured from his board to formulate a succession plan.

Though he was anointed No. 2, Mr. Higgins said it is far from clear that he will inherit the top job when Mr. Murray, who is 57, retires. Indeed, analysts said Mr. Sarles, 52, continues to be a strong contender.

"I don't think 'the' successor would be the operative word," said Mr. Higgins. "Clearly I'm a candidate, but I think there is a lot to be done to pull the operation together until that issue needs to take precedence."

As chief operating officer, Mr. Higgins said he wants to create order within a sprawling enterprise created through years of acquisitions and consolidations.

Mr. Higgins described himself as a hands-on manager with an informal style. "I'm a believer in team dynamics," he said. "I can't tolerate mediocrity, and I don't like to lose."

Corporate lending and commercial banking have been his primary focus since he became a vice chairman in 1993. In his new post, Mr. Higgins will be responsible for consumer as well as commercial banking.

He has a personal yen for action. Last Christmas he went with his family on an African safari, finishing at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. "Next time, I'm going to climb it," he declared.

He keeps a volume of Yeats' poems on his desk. A literature major as an undergraduate at the University of Rhode Island, Mr. Higgins said his favorite author was Herman Melville because he "liked the adventure."

Mr. Higgins joined Fleet in 1971 after a brief stint as a trainee at Chase Manhattan Bank. He worked his way through the corporate lending ranks, ending up as president of Fleet's Rhode Island bank in 1986.

One of the major milestones of Mr. Higgins' career came when he took the helm of a factoring company that Fleet acquired in the mid-1970s. He was sent to Canada to liquidate it.

"It was a risk," he said. "It put me on a track that was slightly different than my peers."

Later, while president of Fleet Bank Rhode Island, he oversaw the integration of the former Connecticut Bank & Trust Co. into Fleet.

"CBT had a long history and was beloved but damaged," Mr. Higgins recalled. "People were demoralized. I had the task of building that back up."

Fleet's acquisition "blueprint," as Mr. Higgins called it, has gotten far more complicated.

Natwest's operations are being consolidated in two phases, beginning with the merger of deposit systems in New York two weekends ago. There is also more advance testing and more people involved in the actual integration than in the Shawmut deal, he added.

The Natwest integration has "gone better than anybody could possibly have expected," said Mr. Higgins, knocking hard on his wooden desktop for luck.

But Fleet faced harsh criticism last year for its handling of the back- office systems from Shawmut's Connecticut operations.

"I think it's very easy to be critical when you have a problem kind of blow up, given the size and scale of what happened in Connecticut," Mr. Higgins said. "The fact is, we haven't lost a lot of valued customers."

Technology investments are a key part of the merger consolidations, he added. Fleet will complete the first stages of its new data warehouse this summer. The data base-a terabyte of information on Fleet customers and their habits-is designed to help the bank set prices and point strategists in the direction of new products.

Initial reaction from Wall Street has been positive.

"They are continuing to get their operating issues straightened out," said Nancy Bush, an analyst at Brown Brothers, Harriman & Co. "They are not having as many problems with the Natwest merger. I think they learned an object lesson."

Some analysts said Fleet has fallen behind in the race to embrace new technology. Mr. Higgins conceded that the mergers have been a distraction.

"If there are banks that have been faster in developing technology, it's because they haven't had the challenges and opportunities of melding all these various banks together," he said.

However, Fleet has recently started emphasizing electronic banking, he said. It offers a home banking product, full-service automated tellers at nonbank locations, and a new telephone sales center.

On the commercial side, Mr. Higgins said, Fleet's year-old corporate finance unit-staffed with several defectors from Citibank-has been a "home run" with long-time corporate borrowers. Fleet, which already underwrites municipal bonds, hopes also to offer equity underwriting within a year.

"We have to stay current with the customer needs in each line of business," said Mr. Higgins. "We can never feel that we're operating at the status quo because the fact is, our customers aren't."

Ironically, more acquisitions may be in the works. Analysts estimated that the company would have to achieve double-digit fee income growth during the next few quarters to maintain profitability. Reaching that goal may require buying a nonbank business, such as an asset management or securities firm.

Oppenheimer & Co. has been widely rumored to be an acquisition target for Fleet. But Mr. Higgins, who acknowledged his company's keen interest in building investment management expertise, discounted the possibility. "There is no meat there," he said of the Oppenheimer rumor.

"Fleet's an opportunistic company," Mr. Higgins added. "We will continue to do deals that make sense."

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