On New Year's Day 1994, John Dienes was sitting in a duck blind with J. Terrell Brown, United Companies' chief executive. They were discussing business. The question of new management for United Companies came up, and Mr. Brown offered Mr. Dienes a job.

Frustrated by the red tape, shrinking rate spreads, and self-immolating competition in the banking industry, where he had spent almost 30 years, Mr. Dienes accepted.

"Now if I want to do something, Terrell is right here. It's a real carpe diem operation," he said.

Home equity lending, in fact, may represent the last vestige of the Wild West atmosphere for the entrepreneurial banking executives who were the cowboys of the 1980s.

Banking, said the former NationsBank corporate banking chief, has become a zero-sum game where, to get ahead, you need to take business from someone else.

"It's so much fun being able to do something with an infant industry," Mr. Dienes added. "It's like early in my banking career."

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