TCF Financial Corp. vice chairman Robert E. Evans, known for instituting free checking at the former thrift, will retire Jan. 1, after 26 years.

His responsibilities will be parceled out to four executives:

Marketing and product development will report to executive vice president Earl D. Stratton.

Investor relations will report to chief financial officer Ronald Palmer.

Investment products will be overseen by vice chairman Thomas Cusick.

Public relations will report to executive vice president Peter Bell.

The 62-year-old Mr. Evans took an unconventional route to top management. He joined TCF, then known as Twin City Federal Savings and Loan, in 1971 as vice president and director of marketing. Before that he had worked as an account executive for Edwin Neuger & Associates of Minneapolis, the public relations agency that handled the Twin City Federal account.

Mr. Evans might never have gone into public relations except for a strike at the Minneapolis Tribune. After working for the Associated Press in New York and writing a book on China, he wanted to move back to his hometown and work at the paper, but the strike prevented him from getting a job there.

Instead he went to work for Neuger-where he learned about banking.

As head of both public relations and in-vestor relations at TCF, Mr. Evans rode out some pretty rough times. The company was near insolvency in the mid-1980s due to high interest rates, insufficient funds to cover commercial real estate loans, a number of dilutive acquisitions, and losses from derivatives.

"Every night we'd lie awake and wait for the horror stories to hit the newspapers the next morning," he said.

William Cooper, TCF's current chairman and chief executive officer, was hired from Michigan National Corp. in 1985 to save the company. Mr. Cooper took it public the following year and spent several years cleaning up its problems. The only senior executive he kept from the old Twin City Federal was Mr. Evans, who was put in charge of retail banking in 1987. He was named vice chairman in 1993.

"When Cooper arrived here, he said the retail bank was the only thing that wasn't broken," Mr. Evans said.

Ben Crabtree, an analyst with Dain Bosworth Inc. in Minneapolis, said Mr. Evans was kept on "because he didn't think like a thrift executive."

It was Mr. Evans who initiated "totally free checking," a hallmark of $10 billion-asset TCF. He was also the prime mover behind TCF's entry into supermarket banking and its sale of mutual funds and annuities. TCF grew from 85,000 checking accounts in 1986 to 710,000 largely because of free checking. It also has 60 supermarket branches. The thrift became a bank this year.

Mr. Crabtree said free checking was the main factor in the turnaround. The company's deposit share in Minneapolis increased from 3%, to 18%, through free checking, he said.

"At the time it seemed pretty crazy," Mr. Evans admits, but TCF makes money on its checking accounts through cross-selling.

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