David A. Coulter's anointment in August as the next chief executive of BankAmerica Corp. may go down as one of the most surprising in modern banking.

Though well regarded as a vice chairman, Mr. Coulter was chief of wholesale banking, which is not considered the forte of BankAmerica or its soon-to-retire chairman, Richard M. Rosenberg. The 48-year-old Mr. Coulter had little visibility outside the institution and was on nobody's list of likely successors.

The favorite was Lewis W. Coleman, who until his recent departure was vice chairman and chief financial officer. Another rumored candidate was former chief financial officer Frank Newman, now moving into the top job at Bankers Trust New York Corp. after a stint at the Treasury Department.

The real reasons for Mr. Coulter's selection are known only within the San Francisco company's inner circle of directors and top executives. For a while, the mystery behind the promotion seemed to fuel speculation that turmoil was brewing in the management ranks.

Some changes did follow. Mr. Coleman took a senior position at Montgomery Securities in San Francisco. Mr. Coulter put his own men into key positions overseeing retail, wholesale, and finance units.

But, significantly, the gossip about high-level disarray has given way to a widely expressed confidence in Mr. Coulter and his plans for the second-biggest U.S. banking company.

"When David Coulter takes over as CEO at the end of the current year, we expect (BankAmerica) to pay increasing attention to its bottom line," Raphael Soifer, an analyst with Brown Brothers Harriman Inc. wrote in a recent note to investors.

The confidence in Mr. Coulter stems from his track record as a wholesale banker and from what he and his team have said they plan to do in the new year.

As head of BankAmerica's U.S. corporate group since 1990 and of its international group since 1993, Mr. Coulter focused on what he has called "blocking and tackling." He boosted returns and improved efficiency by getting his lenders to focus more on cross-selling other, more profitable banking services, such as cash management and bond underwriting.

He also oversaw what insiders say was a smooth and remarkably cordial integration of BankAmerica's and Continental Bank's wholesale operations.

The signals are that similar, back-to-basics changes are in store for 1996. Cost cutting is a high priority, as are shedding underperforming units and improving balance sheet management. Executives insist that big, dilutive mergers aren't part of the game plan, and analysts like what they hear.

"It's his style to make changes in an evolutionary, not a revolutionary way," Mr. Soifer said of Mr. Coulter. "The BankAmerica of a few years from now is likely to be driven by shareholder value to a greater extent than has characterized its operations in the recent past."

Mr. Coulter's promotion from the wholesale side seemed to fuel speculation that management was in turmoil.

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