It took 3,000 people up to 10 hours to get to the American Bankers Association's annual convention here, but Walter A. Dods Jr. merely hopped into his Cadillac Seville for the 10-minute drive from his oceanfront home.

Born and raised in Honolulu, the incoming ABA president is easygoing. "Leave your coats and ties at home," he advised bankers. Wearing a business suit during a trip to Washington, D.C., last month, Mr. Dods announced, "I've been here two days and I've got a rash on my neck."

Meet the chairman and chief executive of First Hawaiian Inc. and its main subsidiary, $8 billion-asset First Hawaiian Bank.

"He is Mr. Hawaii," said Howard L. McMillian, president of Deposit Guaranty National Bank in Jackson, Miss., and ABA president in 1995. "If they still had a king I would think it would be Walter Dods."

Mr. Dods is fourth-generation Hawaiian. He was born in 1941, the oldest of seven children; his dad was a cop and his mom a coffee shop cashier.

"I learned about the banking system as a young kid. My dad once a month put his big police hat in the middle of the table, put all the bills in it, and pulled one out to decide which would be paid that month.

"My first experience in banking is some collector calling our house asking about the payment and my dad saying, 'look if you give me a hard time, I won't even put your bill in the hat this month."'

Mr. Dods, who described himself as a high school "hot rodder," shunned college to work for an insurance company as a "dead-files clerk." By the time he had worked his way up to the mailroom, he had decided to attend college at night.

He graduated from the University of Hawaii in 1967 with a degree in industrial relations. When he was 28, he got a job in the marketing department of First Hawaiian's predecessor bank, Bishops Trust.

Just a few months into the job, Mr. Dods got a call that would change his life. One of the bank's directors, George R. Ariyoshi, phoned Mr. Dods and asked him to work on his campaign for lieutenant governor. Mr. Dods declined, explaining he was swamped by his first big project, changing the bank's name.

"About 15 minutes later I got a call from the chairman of the board of the bank who said 'Congratulations, you're helping George Ariyoshi in his campaign,'" Mr. Dods recalled. "That was my first introduction to politics."

And what a role politics has played in Mr. Dods' life.

Mr. Ariyoshi, a Democrat, went on to win and then to serve three terms as Hawaii's governor. Mr. Dods co-managed all of Mr, Ariyoshi's campaigns - and married his press secretary. Last month, Mr. Dods and his wife, Diane, celebrated their 25th anniversary.

His long and close ties to the Democratic party - Mr. Dods also managed Sen. Daniel K. Inouye's 1992 campaign - could be an issue for him as ABA president.

"Hopefully it'll play O.K.," he said. "I think most bankers will respect you for at least being involved."

The ABA selected Honolulu as the site for its 1996 convention long before Mr. Dods was in line to be its president. But the coincidence doesn't stop there. First Hawaiian finished its new 30-story building just in time for the convention.

At the corner of King and Bishop streets in Honolulu's business district, the $175 million First Hawaiian Center has been in the works for five years. Its lobby, with a 44-foot high ceiling, houses a branch of the Contemporary Museum.

A six-course dinner on Friday for 100 ABA bigwigs was the building's first big event.

During an interview last month, Mr. Dods discussed the issues facing the industry and outlined his goals for the coming year. For the most part, he hit on familiar themes for the industry.

He's mad that credit unions aren't taxed by the federal government and don't have to comply with the Community Reinvestment Act. He thinks bankers are unfairly criticized by a public that does not understand the service and convenience they provide.

On the Savings Association Insurance Fund rescue, he said: "This was the first time in history of the American Congress that one industry was asked to pay for another industry's bailout. That's frustrating for sure, but like most people in the industry I'm glad to get the problem behind us."

While he thinks it will be a long-term fight, Mr. Dods hopes to use his year as ABA president to press for credit union reform.

"I personally believe there is a place for credit unions, but the common-bond thing has gotten so totally out of hand as to be almost a joke," he said. "But I don't look for any quick victories on this front."

Next on Mr. Dods' list is the relationship of banks and thrifts. The two industries, he said, must put aside their differences and work together in 1997 for a common, upgraded charter.

Big banks and small banks also must understand each other better, he said. "I feel like maybe I can play a small role in that because I just feel like I'm in between" as CEO of an $8 billion-asset bank.

"Let's take Glass-Steagall for example. Small banks still generally have no interest or enthusiasm, but I think they could help lobby for it," he said. "When I started with my bank it was $300 million and I didn't care about all those things, but now I'm the CEO of the bank and we're $8 billion and I do care and I'm glad other people who went before me cleared up some of these issues."

Finally, Mr. Dods wants to improve the industry's public image. The debate needs to be redirected from how much banks charge to how well they serve their customers.

"The conveniences that banks offer today are tremendous," he noted. "So the access charges are pretty reasonable but are great hot buttons for certain groups."

Mr. Dods said the ABA needs to explain to the public how much banks do in their communities.

"Somebody has to go out there are tell the other side of the story. We just can't take it sitting down," he said. "When is the last time somebody from Charles Schwab or Merrill Lynch ran the United Way campaign in the community?"

While getting to the convention sessions may be a breeze, his year as ABA president will require Mr. Dods to spend a lot of time on First Hawaiian's nine-passenger Falcon 50 jet. The job entails frequent trips to the nation's capital and journeys to several states for speeches to their banking groups.

Just last month the ABA held a conference call of its top officers. It was 10 a.m. EST but 4 a.m. in Honolulu.

"It was going along fine until somebody asked me my opinion - I was sound asleep on the living room sofa," Mr. Dods said.

Mr. Dods said the new president-elect - William T. McConnell, chairman and CEO of Park National Corp. in Newark, Ohio - will stand in for him occasionally. But Mr. Dods noted, "I'll still put in whatever time it takes to do it right."

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