SAN FRANCISCO - The California unit of Sumitomo Bank Ltd. has taken the unusual step of hiring an American who is not of Asian descent to run its retail branches.

The bank's new executive vice president, 50-year-old Ole B. Larsen, was born in Denmark but moved to California with his family when he was 10. He subsequently became a U.S. citizen and served in the Army before starting a 20-year career at the former Security Pacific National Bank, where he managed a substantial portion of its branch network.

Sumitomo Bank of California, which has done business in the state since 1952, has never before had an American who is not of Asian descent in charge of its branch network, officials said.

The explanation for this is simple. Sumitomo Bank of California is relatively big, with $4.9 billion of assets, but Mr. Larsen said that most of its 47 branches are in areas with substantial Asian populations. In addition, many of the bank's top officers are Japanese citizens who rotate into their assignments before taking other jobs with the parent company.

But Sumitomo California's new president, 54-year-old Tsuneo Onda, who assumed his post in June and is Mr. Larsen's boss, is seeking to lessen the bank's reliance on business with Asians. He has set as a goal making Sumitomo an "outstanding American bank" and is pushing to attract more California customers who aren't of Asian descent.

Mr. Larsen was brought in to lead those efforts on the retail side, bank officials explained.

Mr. Larsen acknowledged that he had "limited experience" in banking with Asian communities. But he said he has ample experience in banking with other Californians.

His last assignment before leaving Security Pacific in 1992 was as executive vice president in charge of most of the bank's southern California branches. Since then, he has worked at Charles Schwab & Co. as a regional vice president.

Mr. Larsen said Sumitomo Bank of California may increase its consumer loan portfolio by acquisitions in the wholesale market. He hopes to improve Sumitomo's efficiency by installing better computer systems and centralizing loan processing.

And Sumitomo may expand its retail branch network, he said, by buying branch offices that other California banks are closing to save money.

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