Robert M. Walker insists he's no glutton for punishment, but his last two jobs might lead one to think otherwise.

Four years ago, Mr. Walker signed on as chief credit officer at Valley National Corp., Phoenix, just as Arizona's real estate market was collapsing. He helped guide Valley National through near-deadly loan problems, leaving when the company was restored to health and an acquisition by Banc One Corp. was pending.

Now Mr. Walker has jumped into another storm. He has returned to his home state of California as vice chairman and commercial banking chief at Union Bank in San Francisco at a time when the Golden State economy is slumping and real estate is in free-fall.

The 51-year-old Mr. Walker is unfazed.

Reasons for Optimism

Although California's problems are serious, he maintains that the growing population, the still attractive quality of life, and an entrepreneurial spirit make the state a superior place to do business over the long haul.

Says the Palo Alto native: "For banking, there is no better place on the planet."

At Union, a majority of which is owned by Bank of Tokyo, Mr. Walker is running two of the bank's core businesses: middle-market leading and real estate finance.

Over the past eight years, Mr. Walker has worked as credit chief at Crocker National Bank and Wells Fargo & Co. in addition to Valley National.

At Union, his hands will be full managing nonperforming loans and foreclosed property that amount to 4.7% of the bank's $16.9 billion in assets. Though the bank is known as a careful underwriter and has fared better than many California institutions, its $2.4 billion construction portfolio leaves it vulnerable in a continuing downturn.

But Union's new vice chairman says the job was attractive to him because it is a line position overseeing commercial lending as well as credit. "I'm not just here in a workout mode," he stresses.

Former colleagues say Mr. Walker combines an easygoing manner with seriousness of purpose, giving him the unusual ability to be blunt without offending, tough without being cruel, and intense without intimidating others.

"He's professionally very competent, while personally he is a lot of fun to be with," says Valley National's retail banking chief, Robert D. Sznewajs.

In person, the chain-smoking Mr. Walker is amiable and refreshingly direct, without a hint of pomposity.

Embarrassing Contradiction

Asked why he left Valley, he doesn't dodge: "We were telling everybody that we had overcome our problems, but a big credit organization contradicted that. My role had to be diminished."

While waxing enthusiastic over his new job, he says he pities those who have no life outside of work. He confesses he is working on a novel about banking, a tale of how "chasing money and power makes an ass of you."

Considering that he has worked side by side with the likes of BankAmerica Corp.'s Richard Rosenberg, Wells Fargo's Carl Reichardt, and Mellon Bank's Frank Cahouet, many in the industry would love to read a roman a clef. But they will be disappointed: Mr. Walker says none of his characters are modeled on real people.

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