Frustrated by its failure to raise capital, First New York Bank for Business has turned to a veteran banker and onetime regulator in hopes of ensuring the performance it needs to survive.

Eliot S. Robinson, vice chairman and chief operating officer, said his immediate goals were to improve profitability, market share, and capital ratios while reducing nonperforming assets.

Mr. Robinson, 50, has been with First New York since 1986. Two months ago he was assigned day-to-day management responsibility at the bank, a small-business specialist that was formerly the First Women's Bank.

A generation ago, at the start of his career, he was a national bank examiner based in Richmond, Va.

He later worked for Manufacturers Hanover Trust Co., National Westminster Bank USA and, from 1973 to 1986, Bank Leumi Trust Co., all in New York.

Hunting for Capital

A key priority at First New York is to find investors willing to infuse much-needed capital. But recent experience suggests that is easier said than done.

The bank seemed to have a savior earlier this year in Designcraft Industries Inc., an investment vehicle of entrepreneur John Catsimatidis, who is First New York's chairman. Designcraft agreed to take control of the bank for $9.75 million.

Mr. Robinson said the due-diligence process proved too time consuming, and the deal fell through. The bank's board also decided against a public offering, opting to seek private sources of capital.

Now the bank is back where it started, with $16.1 million in capital, equal to 2.7% of its $575 million in total assets, well below the regulatory minimum. The company remains saddled with bad real estate loans that accumulated during a fast-growth phase in the 1980s. Nonperformers are put at $36.75 million.

Although Mr. Robinson concedes that capital is insufficient, he said "the projections will show a profitable bank."

The priority therefore is to find ways to increase the bank's reserves, augment profits, and avert a possible seizure by regulators.

Aiming High

New York State has formally requested an increase in the capital ratio. Bank directors are aiming for 5% by 1993, and want to do much better than that in the longer term.

Mr. Robinson vows to exhaust all possibilities.

"We will monitor the existing real estate portfolio," he said. "Most of the loans were made near the peak of the real estate cycle. The problem is that nobody can figure out when the cycle will reach its peak or bottom."

Mr. Robinson also plans to diversify toward middle-market types of businesses, such as import and export, light manufacturing, service industries, and distributors.

Key Role for Chairman

"We need to adopt a policy that limits exposure to any one industry or customer," he said.

That is where chairman John Catsimatidis will play a role.

"John has a very sharp business mind and offers good direction," Mr. Robinson said. "He is more knowledgeable of certain industries the bank would make a loan to."

While Mr. Catsimatidis, whose holdings include supermarkets and real estate, brings an outsider's perspective to the boardroom, Mr. Robinson is being relied upon for his seasoning as a banker.

After a short stint with the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, he was a senior credit analyst at Manufacturers Hanover from 1969 to 197 1. He moved on to National Westminster, then the National Bank of North America, where his responsibilities included handling problem ship loans and leases.

He joined American Bank and Trust Co., later bought by Bank Leumi Trust in 1973, and rose through commercial and consumer lending to senior vice presidency of the Israeli-owned retail bank.

A Struggling Institution

He arrived at First Women's Bank in October 1986 as part of a team planning to reorganize and take control. Two months later he gained the title of executive vice president for operations and administration, focusing on the back office and customer service.

Then began the struggles to get First Women's/First New York back on an even keel. He became chief lending officer in 1989.

A native of Washington, Mr. Robinson is a graduate of the University of Virginia and holds an MBA degree from Pace University.

His interest in economics lured him to banking, he said. And he discovered that "the lending area can make or break a bank."

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