"Oh, Tony."

Anthony R. Gray, the unbankerly chairman of SunBank Capital Management, is at it again, and a publicity maven for the SunTrust Banks Inc. subsidiary is registering her dismay.

Without her knowledge, Mr. Gray has allowed a reporter to observe him in action. And nothing seems to be off limits, including the calls he is taking on his speaker phone.

"Hi, Tony," one caller says. "I'm with Equitable Trust Co., and we've got $1 million with the Tony Gray fund with SunTrust. We're looking for our performance for the first quarter."

Mr. Gray gives the caller his figure for that fund, the SunTrust Capital Appreciation fund: 8.4%.

Later on, in between placing calls to traders to buy tens of thousands of shares of Burlington Northern, Waste Management, and other stocks, he takes a call from the promoter of his new book, "A Thousand Miles from Wall Street."

She is worried about a recent negative article in The Wall Street Journal about Mr. Gray's investment setbacks.

All of this is for a visitor to hear, just as Mr. Gray's earlier successes and recent problems became a favorite sport of the business press.

It was only three years ago that, while introducing its mutual funds, SunBank was promoting the now 55-year-old stock picker with advertisements all over the country.

That was when his corporate equity fund was ranked tops in the country and the media hailed him as the best stock fund manager in the United States.

Since then, Mr. Gray has had a tougher time managing the $4 billion he has under control, particularly last year, when his STI Classic Capital Growth Fund had a negative return of 8%.

To make matters worse, his best money manager, Greg DePrince, walked out two weeks ago with two other top executives to start an investment management firm in an office building right across the street in downtown Orlando.

"They're keeping in touch by stealing my people and my accounts," Mr. Gray says, adding that the three who left snatched two secretaries and even tried raiding his best portfolio people.

Mr. Gray said the three have taken away almost a third of the 40 accounts that made up the $2.9 billion of the mutual fund Mr. DePrince ran - the STI Classic Value Income Stock Fund.

In the 16 years that Mr. Gray has been with SunBank Capital, there have been many ups and downs. The recent departures are definitely a low, he says.

"We're getting bad press all of a sudden," he says.

Though Mr. Gray is open to talking to people, he's no press hound. Indeed, the coronation and subsequent dethroning of Tony Gray is the work of others.

Even the idea to write a book about his investment strategy wasn't his idea, said Kurt F. Greenbaum, a journalist with the Fort Lauderdale Sun- Sentinel who helped Mr. Gray write the book.

Mr. Gray, for his part, says he doesn't even have time to promote the work because his job as a stock and bond picker is all-consuming.

"I don't have time to go to meetings, see clients, travel," he says. "The market opens, I'm supposed to be here."

His day starts by 7:30 every morning, when he arrives at his eighth- floor office in the SunBank building from his home in nearby Winter Park.

A breakfast with an analyst is followed by about nine hours in front of the quotation machine, interrupted by a quick lunch at noon. Mr. Gray makes his living combing through eight screens of about 500 stocks, talking to brokers and traders in 10-second conversations, and making quick decisions.

"There is a lot of drama doing this," he says. "At the end of the day, when it's all over, you sigh and go home."

Tony Gray has been doing this work for about 30 years, 16 of them at SunBank. His curt speech is punctuated by decisive O.K.s, yesses, and noes.

The verbal efficiency is the result of an orderly mind - Mr. Gray holds a graduate degree in actuarial science from the University of Iowa - and years of making quick decisions.

People who know him say that he is as reliable as he is laconic.

They say Mr. Gray built SunBank Capital almost from scratch, taking it from $1.9 million to the $11.4 billion in pooled pension funds and mutual fund assets it now runs.

"Everyone reveres him," says Carl E. Stallard, the former president of SunBank's trust and investment services group, who hired Mr. Gray in 1979 as director of research. "There is nobody in banking who even comes close.

"He's going to be hitting home runs again."

Mr. Stallard, who left the bank in 1993, says that Mr. Gray had been offered "tremendous opportunities" from other banks, mutual fund companies, and investment management firms.

But Mr. Gray has turned them down.

"When it comes time for me to do something different, I'll retire," Mr. Gray says. "I'm not going to go across the street."

Mr. Gray may in fact be an anomaly among money managers, who tend to be younger, flashier, and more opportunistic.

"With Tony, what you see is what you get," said Mr. Greenbaum. "He has a real nice house with a pool - not ostentatious at all."

Mr. Gray concurs. "I don't have a very high lifestyle. I don't have lizard boots, I don't drive a Ferrari."

Indeed, one of his few indulgences is collecting replicas by American artist Frederic Remington.

In his book, Mr. Gray takes pride in being 1,500 miles from Wall Street, which he considers a "glass canyon" filled with thousands of analysts, traders, brokers, and Harvard MBAs.

It's not the kind of crowd the "kid from Nebraska" who used to read stock quotes to his 82-year-old grandfather is comfortable mixing with.

True, he says, he gets a rush from making $30 million decisions every day, but he also gets lumps in his throat after bad decisions.

Take the last two years, for example. In the 10 years leading up to 1992, Mr. Gray's style of investing in medium- and large-capitalization stocks with strong growth potential, worked in his favor. His Corporate Equity Fund, a commingled pension fund, became the top performer of the decade.

From 1980 to 1990, that fund posted a return of 679%, or an annual average of 22.8%, higher than the annual average of 21.27% scored by Peter Lynch's Fidelity Magellan Fund.

But in 1992, when the economy picked up and cyclical stocks outperformed the consumer products companies that are his bread and butter, Mr. Gray was hurt.

He also admits to dabbling in casino stocks and other small-cap equities that went south. One pick, Cott, a manufacturer of private-label soft drinks, fell from a high of $37 to $10 after Mr. Gray purchased it.

"We have since moved out of most of those and back into the Mercks and the Procter & Gambles," Mr. Gray said.

Now that the economy is slowing down again, the expectation is that growth stocks are back in vogue - along with Mr. Gray.

But Mr. Gray is not about to give too much weight to talk of a personal turnaround. "You're not as good as your peak, and not as bad as your trough," he says.

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