William T. McConnell's world is about to get a whole lot bigger-and a lot less comfortable.

Today, the man who helped turn Park National Corp. into a hugely successful $2.3 billion-asset holding company here takes over as president of the American Bankers Association.

In an interview, the leader of the industry's largest trade group said job No. 1 is solidifying the ABA's position in the ever-shrinking financial services world.

"There is going to be a consolidation of trade groups," Mr. McConnell predicted. "The ABA should be a survivor."

Quotes like that make people in Washington very nervous. But Mr. McConnell, the personification of a plain-speaking midwesterner, said the elected leaders of industry groups must recognize that as the industry consolidates, so must its trade associations.

If ABA wants to remain on top, Mr. McConnell said, it must take the lead. "Our nightmare is America's Community Bankers and the Independent Bankers Association of America merging."

Such blunt talk could get him into trouble, but Mr. McConnell said the industry must pull together to succeed on Capitol Hill.

Bill McConnell has spent the bulk of his 64 years in south-central Ohio, just east of Columbus. He earned an undergraduate degree in economics from Denison University in Granville, Ohio, where he and his wife, Jane, live today. Most mornings, he drives the seven miles to Park National's headquarters in Newark, a city of 45,000.

Since Mr. McConnell joined the bank in 1960, its earnings per share have increased every year. He's a modest man who insists much of the credit belongs to the late Everett D. Reese-the only other Ohio banker to be ABA president-who hired Mr. McConnell at $450 a month to sort checks and the mail.

Still, Mr. McConnell has led Park National for the last 28 years; his unassuming looks and aw-shucks demeanor hide an ambitious core. "I always aspired to run the bank," he said.

A so-called super community bank, Park National buys solid banks and then leaves them alone. The only functions centralized are ones the customers can't see, such as audits and equipment leasing.

Park National's success is based on a simple idea. "We try to give better service and get paid for it," Mr. McConnell explained.

When he speaks to the ABA convention today he said he plans to "scare" bankers.

The way he sees it, Congress will come back to financial reform legislation just about the time that the Supreme Court decides to limit credit union membership in a case the ABA helped start. That means politically powerful credit unions will be added to the already crowded field of interest groups trying to influence the bill.

"Next year could be a disaster," Mr. McConnell said.

His defense is a united offense.

"As long as Congress is passing banking bills that affect the entire industry, we have to hang together," he said.

To Mr. McConnell, the differences dividing small and large banks are diminishing. Still, he admitted his biggest challenge will be bringing the two pieces of the industry together.

A community banker for 37 years, he knows many ABA members are suspicious of its big-bank contingent. But he said they should remember that a big chunk of the ABA's budget comes from dues paid by large banks. "Big banks aren't saying, 'Don't spend our money on the credit union fight,'" Mr. McConnell noted.

Large banks, he said, join ABA for its lobbying muscle and must recognize much of that strength comes from its thousands of community bank members.

"The big banks are in it simply for Ed Yingling and his staff of lobbyists," Mr. McConnell said. "They really need the breadth ABA can reach. That's the only reason they pay their dues."

Mr. McConnell said he hopes to help both sides realize that they need each other. In particular, he wants the biggest banks to take a more visible role in ABA and wants community banks to stop blaming the association when laws or rules don't come out perfectly.

"Bad things that have happened would have been much worse without the ABA," he said, citing as an example the 1996 thrift insurance fund fix. "That would have happened sooner, and it would have cost more" without the ABA's opposition.

On the pending financial modernization bill, Mr. McConnell is equally practical. "Let's take what we can get," he said, even if it includes some provisions banks don't like, such as requiring new activities to be done in holding company subsidiaries.

Any bill must scrap the barriers separating banking, securities, and insurance, he said. The thrift charter must be eliminated, and no mixing of banking and commerce may be permitted. Mr. McConnell also would like to see the Federal Home Loan Bank System expanded.

He is concerned that the ABA's vigorous opposition to specific legislation reforming financial laws will end up turning members against any change.

But that's the inherent problem with trade associations, he said. They have to outrage members to get them involved in an issue but then, when it comes time to compromise, the association may leave members feeling shortchanged.

"That's a frustration," he admitted. "We promise more than we can end up delivering."

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