Despite the similar size and strategies of New Orleans rivals Hibernia Corp. and First Commerce Corp., their chief executive officers received vastly different compensation last year.

The annual bonus of Hibernia CEO Stephen A. Hansel was cut nearly in half last year, and he got no raise in base pay. Meanwhile First Commerce CEO Ian Arnof raked in a big raise and his bonus more than doubled.

Mr. Hansel's bonus, more than $400,000 in 1994 and again in 1995, amounted to only $250,000 last year-the lowest in his five-year tenure. That is about 52% of the most he was eligible for in 1996, according to the company's recently released proxy. His salary was $500,000.

At $9.2 billion-asset First Commerce, Mr. Arnof received his first salary raise since 1993-$75,000, to $600,000. The First Commerce board also saw fit to reward him with a hefty bonus of $435,600-200% more than in 1995.

Both companies turned in strong performances in 1996, according to analysts. In fact, $9.3 billion-asset Hibernia appears to have had a particularly good year, in which it completed five mergers.

So why the big difference?

"A lot of the discrepancies between CEO compensation packages can hinge on the measuring stick," said John A. Pandtle, an analyst with Robinson- Humphrey Co. "It comes down to the hurdles they have to clear."

At First Commerce, the obstacle was erratic earnings in the early 1990s that fell short of analyst expectations. The earnings stream was constantly being "whipsawed," according to Anthony A. Lombardi, an analyst with Dean Witter Reynolds Discover.

But 1996 showed great improvement, and the First Commerce compensation committee took that into consideration, according to the proxy. Fully half of Mr. Arnof's bonus was based on the company's return on equity, which totaled 16.37% in 1996, up from 11.05% in 1995, the proxy said. The remaining half was based on the compensation committee's subjective evaluation of Mr. Arnof's individual performance, the proxy said.

At Hibernia, a recapitalization and growth strategy engineered by Mr. Hansel in the early 1990s appears to have helped it reach many of its performance goals, according to analysts.

But it could do a better job managing expenses, Hibernia officials said. Its efficiency ratio improved only slightly from 65.84% at yearend 1995 to 65.5% at yearend 1996.

Overall, the company's 1996 performance was favorable, with earnings up 21%, loans up 28%, and a 20-basis-point improvement in the net interest margin. Indeed, of the bank's four other top executives, three received increases in their annual bonuses (the fourth only joined the company in 1996) due to the company's solid performance.

Hibernia corporate counsel Patty Meringer said Mr. Hansel's performance in 1995 was "extraordinary," and the board chose to recognize that by giving him 100% of his eligible bonus that year.

But in 1996, "there wasn't any one real pocket of people or person who was instrumental in something really extraordinary," she said.

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