SAN FRANCISCO - Few promotions have been greeted with as much surprise as David A. Coulter's appointment as the next CEO of BankAmerica Corp.

But a look at the background of the 48-year-old banker shows that surprise was perhaps the wrong reaction. Mr. Coulter has been close to the chief executive's office for a substantial part of his nearly two-decade career at BankAmerica.

Rising to chief executive is less a leap than a logical progression for a man with a knack for getting along with high-powered peers and rivals in the country's second-largest banking company.

"This, frankly, was not a surprise to me," said Mack Terry, a financial consultant with the Monterey Group in San Francisco, who, in a former position as a senior vice president at BankAmerica, hired Mr. Coulter for his first job at the company in 1976.

It was in this job at BankAmerica that Mr. Coulter first got to know the bank's power structure. As Mr. Terry recalls, Mr. Coulter was green, with minimal work experience after studying mathematics and industrial administration at Carnegie-Mellon University in his hometown of Pittsburgh.

Mr. Coulter was also a bit looser. Mr. Terry remembers that he and Mr. Coulter used to spend time "hacking around" the bank's mainframe computer systems, "breaking into each other's directories, and leaving strange messages."

He recalls Mr. Coulter then as being "cheerful" and "goofy," although he says the goofiness later disappeared from public view as Mr. Coulter began to take on more responsibility.

In his first job, Mr. Coulter was a financial consultant for a unit in the bank's treasury department that made independent evaluations of how well business units were performing. This was a touchy job. Sometimes the evaluations were at odds with what the division heads wanted to see, Mr. Terry said.

But Mr. Coulter stood out as a consensus builder, who kept his opinions close to the vest.

Mr. Terry said that this quality made Mr. Coulter a perfect candidate for a job as executive assistant for former BankAmerica chief executive A.W. Clausen, a position he held at the end of Mr. Clausen's first term in 1980 and 1981. Mr. Clausen was notorious for a combativeness and moodiness that made it difficult for some executives to work with him.

Mr. Coulter continued as executive assistant for Mr. Clausen's successor, Samuel H. Armacost, until 1982, when he began working in the mergers and acquisitions area of the corporate planning department. This unit was run by Stephen McLin, then a senior vice president.

Mr. McLin, who is now president of the San Francisco-based bank holding company America First Financial Corp., said he believes that Mr. Coulter was one of the few people to get along well with both Mr. Clausen and Mr. Armacost. He also remembers Mr. Coulter as having a "good network with a lot of people at the bank."

Additionally, Mr. McLin said that Mr. Coulter distinguished himself for being "very analytical, and very methodical." He also can share some of the glory for one of BankAmerica's biggest coups - the acquisition of Seattle- based Seafirst Corp. in 1983. At the time, the bank was struggling, but it has since been transformed into one of the best-performing banks in the country, and has been held out by BankAmerica management as a guiding light for the rest of the company.

Mr. Coulter did the due-diligence work on the Seafirst acquisition, Mr. McLin said.

By 1990, Mr. Coulter had moved up to head of BankAmerica's U.S. corporate group, selling loans, cash management, and other financial services to corporations. In 1993, he added responsibility for international operations and became a vice chairman. In this position, he is credited with handling much of the successful integration of the wholesale-oriented Continental Bank, which BankAmerica acquired last year.

"Everybody liked him. He didn't step on any toes, and he tended to be an integrator who created compromise among dissenting factions," Mr. McLin said about Mr. Coulter.

"That's his strength, and that's why I think he's sitting there," he added.

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