Vice president First National Bank of Chicago

The banking industry's heightened emphasis on middle-market companies is pushing a new breed of bank managers to the fore. People like Sandra A. VanGilder.

Division head of business and professional financial services at First Chicago Corp., Ms. VanGilder guides a 75-person team that caters to small- and midsize local firms, their owners, and entrepreneurs. Her unit manages more than 8,000 accounts and is expanding its client base at a healthy 10% annual rate.

Ms. VanGilder's efforts are important to First Chicago. Under chairman and chief executive Richard Thomas, the company is scaling back high-risk commercial lending in national and international markets in an effort to reposition itself as a midwestern provider of financial services.

As an executive on the front lines of that effort, Ms. VanGilder, 38, views herself less as a banker than as a small-business counselor. "You've got to be flexible, keep your skill set fresh, and understand your customers' needs, " she says.

Though not yet at the midpoint of her career, Ms. VanGilder already has considerable experience.

After graduating from St. Mary's College in 1976, the Milwaukee native joined the First Scholar Program -- rotating through various divisions of First Chicago Corp. by day and working on an MBA at the University of Chicago by night. She graduated in 1979.

Ms. VanGilder spent the next three years analyzing clients' financial statements for the treasury department, then put in two years on the foreign exchange desk. She became a private banker in 1984 and blossomed, rising to become a unit head in 1988 and division head in 1990.

Looking to the future, Ms. VanGilder expects two main growth opportunities in her division, both having to do with the maturing baby boomers.

First, Ms. VanGilder foresees more mid-career corporate executives either dropping out or being forced out of jobs, in turn founding small companies that will need her unit's services.

Second, she anticipates a growing need for estate and investment planning among boomers who are accumulating wealth and beginning to look toward retirement.

The tough part of making things come together, she says, is providing the internal support needed to bolster employee performance while at the same time hitting efficiency targets.

But there's no doubt about her priority: "I want to create a supportive environment," she says. "That's what best enables employees to support customers."

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