Seafirst Chief Is Rising Star at BankAmerica

SEATTLE -- Luke S. Helms, chief executive of Seattle-First National Bank, is earning rave reviews as a marketing maestro.

In the year since Mr. Helms, 47, moved from the No. 2 job to become chairman and CEO, the Washington State unit of BankAmerica Corp. has scored big gains in profits and market share. Seafirst, as the bank is known, has outperformed other BankAmerica units and solidified its reputation as one of the industry's top sales organizations.

Yet BankAmerica, like other large banking companies, is tightening its grip on its multistate empire to promote efficiency and reduce costs. Seafirst's independence is clearly eroding. To put it starkly, Luke Helms' job description is changing from that of a semiautonomous viceroy to glorified regional manager.

Mr. Helms "has done an excellent job. He's highly regarded," said Hans F. Harjo, chief executive of Key Bank of Puget Sound, Seattle, a KeyCorp unit. "But Seafirst is going to become more of a BankAmerica subsidiary."

There's no need to feel sorry for Mr. Helms, though. His marketing talents have made him a rising star within BankAmerica. A close relationship with Richard M. Rosenberg, his mentor when BankAmerica's current chief was president of Seafirst in the mid-1980s, doesn't hurt his prospects.

"This guy isn't going to be at Seafirst forever," predicted R. Jay Tejera, an analyst for Dain Bosworth Inc., Seattle. "Several years down the road, he will have a bigger role" at BankAmerica.

Getting Ready to Dominate

For now, Mr. Helms has his hands full with BankAmerica's pending acquisition of Los Angeles-based Security Pacific Corp. As part of the deal, Mr. Helms will take over Security Pacific Bank Washington, Seafirst's longtime rival and the No. 2 bank in the state.

Already Washington's largest bank, Seafirst will become overwhelming. After the merger, it will have more than $16 billion in assets and about 45% of the state's commercial bank deposits, even after branches and deposits are sold to satisfy anti-trust rules.

BankAmerica bought Seafirst in 1983 when the Washington bank was near bankruptcy. Under Mr. Helms' predecessor, the highly regarded Richard P. Cooley, the bank mended slowly but steadily. More recently, Seafirst has cleaned up some messy commercial real estate problems, while prospering with one of the most lucrative consumer banking franchises in the country.

In 1990, its return on assets was 1.15%, compared to 1.04% for BankAmerica as a whole. Aided by Washington State's relatively strong economy, the bank's profits have improved steadily throughout 1991. Seafirst's third-quarter return on assets was a spectacular 1.70% compared, to 0.99% for its parent.

Maintaining Autonomy

Currently, Seafirst is the only BankAmerica interstate unit not managed from San Francisco, despite the efforts of a powerful BankAmerica faction -- including vice chairman and consumer banking chief Thomas E. Peterson -- to end that special status, banking sources said.

Analysts said the bank's outstanding track record has slowed down BankAmerica's drive toward control.

"BankAmerica's management knows they have got a good thing up here," said Scott McAdams, an analyst at Ragen MacKenzie, Seattle. "They don't want to tamper with it too much."

That means Seafirst will be allowed to keep its distinctive name a while longer, despite persistent rumors that it would adopt the Bank of America moniker. And it will continue to manage its own marketing efforts.

"We don't want the image of a big, impersonal California-owned bank," Mr. Helms said in a September interview.

Creeping Centralization

Nevertheless, BankAmerica has steadily increased control over Seafirst as it tries to build a fully integrated, low-cost interstate organization. Already, BankAmerica is managing such functions as finance, internal credit review, and computer operations for Seafirst.

And last year, BankAmerica named Kevin B. Ferrell, a California corporate banking executive, as Mr. Helms' second-in-command.

It was the first time a BankAmerica import was given a top job at the Washington bank. One of Mr. Ferrell's tasks is to knit Seafirst's wholesale operations more closely into those of other BankAmerica units.

Also in 1990, Seafirst lost a bid to manage BankAmerica's Oregon subsidiary; authority over operations in that state was handed to BankAmerica's newly formed interstate banking unit.

But the biggest change lies ahead. Mr. Helms now reports directly to Mr. Rosenberg. After the Security Pacific merger, BankAmerica vice chairman Lewis W. Coleman will oversee all bank units in the Northwest, including Seafirst.

Aggressive New Boss

Mr. Coleman, head of BankAmerica's U.S. and international wholesale operations, is viewed as a top contender for the CEO slot when Mr. Rosenberg retires. Seafirst will be the biggest banking subsidiary under his authority, and he is not the type to shrink from taking command.

Mr. Helms insisted that he supports the move to integrate Seafirst more closely with BankAmerica, as long as the bank continues to respond to local customers. "To gain market share profitably -- that's the only thing that drives me," he said.

A relaxed and engaging host with a self-deprecating sense of humor, Mr. Helms is a natural salesman.

Colleagues say that working for him is alternately thrilling and exhausting. They describe him as a high-energy, idea-a-minute type, impatient over details, who sometimes leaves subordinates gasping for breath as they scramble to keep up.

An Ability to Maneuver

Mr. Helms' disarming personality conceals an underlying shrewdness. Mr. Cooley tapped him as his successor from among a trio of bright young executive vice presidents in the mid-1980s. The other two, Roy A. Henderson and William D. Pettit Jr., have left for jobs at other banks.

Mr. Helms "is a good office politician, and I don't mean that in a derogatory sense," said a former Seafirst board member. "He understands the corporate game."

Luke Helms joined Seafirst in 1974 and spent his early years as a corporate banker. But in the mid-1980s, when Mr. Rosenberg was Seafirst's president, Mr. Helms became his protege, learning the art of consumer banking from an acknowledged master.

"I practically lived with the guy for 18 months," Mr. Helms recalled. "He showed me how to shop the branches: Hit 'em at lunchtime. Is the cash machine clean? Is the branch neat? Is the merchandising up? Are there a lot of people?"

Building on Excellence

When Mr. Rosenberg moved to BankAmerica's California bank in 1987, Mr. Helms replaced him as Seafirst president.

Always a market leader, Seafirst under Mr. Helms has become an even more adept sales organization. It pioneered innovations like five-minute service guarantees, Saturday product specials, and stamp sales through automated teller machines.

Mr. Helms takes a special interest in Seafirst's customer-contact employees, always looking for those who project a clean-cut, perky image.

"I pick them based on the smile on their face, their appearance, and their attitude," he said.

In July, Mr. Helms launched a Switch to Seafirst campaign, one of the most aggressive sales drives ever seen in banking. Customers were offered $50 savings bonds for bringing in checks from rival banks and similar incentives for other product switches.

While the campaign was in full swing, Seafirst was opening from 800 to 1,000 new accounts a day, Mr. Helms said.

But high-powered salesmanship has its hazards. During the campaign, special "Switch to Seafirst" vans were parked close to competitors' branches to corral other banks' customers.

In August, after BankAmerica's merger with Security Pacific was announced, a van parked outside a Security Pacific office had to be moved in a hurry, Mr. Helms confessed.

PHOTO : COMMANDING VIEW: Luke Helms' Seafirst is poised to dominate.

PHOTO : CORPORATE IMAGE is prominent in the thinking of Luke S. Helms, the marketing whiz who runs Seafirst, No. 1 bank in Seattle.

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