Expanding its presence in the East, BankAmerica Corp.'s private bank is setting up shop in Atlanta.

The San Francisco-based banking behemoth this week tapped vice president H. Randall "Randy" Portwood to lead a new wealth management office in Atlanta. It is the bank's first attempt to serve that market's affluent individuals.

"The Southeast is certainly the fastest-growing market, and we want to be in Atlanta," said John A. McAdams, executive vice president of Bank of America Illinois. Mr. McAdams handles BankAmerica's private banking activities from Chicago eastward.

Mr. Portwood, 37, is no stranger to Atlanta. He spent the last 12 years there as a corporate lender, for BankAmerica and two banks it has acquired - Security Pacific Corp. and Continental Bank Corp.

Mr. Portwood will be in charge of selling customized credit and investment products in a highly competitive market. Such southern banking stalwarts as SunTrust Banks Inc., NationsBank Corp., and Wachovia Corp. have private bankers in Atlanta, a market teeming with opportunity.

As of 1995, 3,327 Atlanta households had net investable assets of more than $5 million, according to PSI, a Tampa-based research firm. That's a 144% increase since 1990.

The competition is intense, but the market's robust growth is creating room for new players, said John J. DeMarco, a senior vice president at PSI.

"Atlanta has always had a reputation of being a closed town where established networks of people do business," said Mr. DeMarco, who lived there five years. But, he said, the city's "strong old boy network" is "breaking down somewhat."

At BofA, Mr. McAdams hopes to crack the market by staffing its private bank with executives who are familiar with Atlanta's commercial banking clients. There's "a method to our madness," he said.

The bank is following a similar strategy in New York, where senior vice president Christian LeBris was just appointed regional private banking director.

Mr. LeBris, 49, has worked for Bank of America in New York for eight years as a corporate banker. He succeeds Douglas H. Lemmonds, who left last spring to join Deutsche Bank Trust Co. in New York.

Like Mr. Portwood, Mr. LeBris is a native of the city to which he is assigned.

"We think that's of value. In both cases they have grown up in these locales. There are deep roots and that's important," Mr. McAdams said.

Yet others say it takes more than connections for a corporate banker to make the transition to private banker.

"It's more natural to have someone who has a brokerage or investment management background,"said Charles B. Wendel, president of Financial Institutions Consulting in New York.

"If the private banker is going to be an adviser, then the client expects that person to offer advice. It's not just a referral job or a quarterback - it's more than that."

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