In 1994, Harris H. Simmons, the soft-spoken and slightly built president and chief executive officer of Zions Bancorp. in Salt Lake City, took it on the chin.

A controversial push into government securities was compressing interest margins, causing Zions' stock price to languish. The trouble spilled over into the first quarter of 1995, when a trading snafu forced the bank to take an unusual $4.3 million charge against earnings.

But even in the hard times, $5.7 billion-asset Zions remained one of the most profitable U.S. banks. And as 1995 wore on, Zions' fortunes changed for the better. Its share price has more than doubled in the past year as returns on equity topped 21%. The stock has been hovering at some 2.7 times book value.

Dean Witter Reynolds Inc. now ranks Zions as the top-performing regional bank in the country, based on a composite analysis of fundamentals. And many analysts are hailing Mr. Simmons, 41, as a visionary.

James Marks, an analyst with Hancock Institutional Equity Services in San Francisco, calls Zions "a model of the way banking organizations should be run."

The company was founded by Brigham Young and has historical ties to the Mormon Church.

The bank is also distinguished by its willingness to do the unusual, and usually to make money at it. For example, Zions is a primary dealer in government securities, an activity normally associated with much bigger Wall Street firms and commercial banks.

Zions is also among the leaders in originating, securitizing, and trading small-business loans, and in selling off loans to boost liquidity and fee income. This year the company obtained nationwide "preferred lender" status from the Small Business Administration, an activity Zions runs from a St. Louis base.

Strategy is set by Mr. Simmons, who succeeded his father as chief executive in 1990. A family trust in which Mr. Simmons participates ranks as Zions' biggest shareholder, with a stake worth $86 million. The upshot is that Mr. Simmons doesn't exactly have to work for a living.

Nonetheless, Mr. Simmons regularly puts in 12-hour days. And analysts appreciate the effort.

"He's focused on what is most important for an executive of a publicly traded company - increasing shareholder value," Mr. Marks said.

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