E. Lee Beard is no stranger to the issues she will face as chairman of America's Community Bankers.

The Pennsylvania banker, whose one-year term will start Wednesday at the thrift group's convention in Chicago, helped steer the group as a member of its strategic planning committee.

She has testified before Congress on regulatory relief and presided over the Federal Reserve's Thrift Advisory Board.

And she knows stock as well as mutual thrifts. Not only did she lead a trade group committee on mutuals, she also presided over the conversion of her own First Federal Bank of Hazleton to stock form.

Ms. Beard, chief executive officer of $500 million-asset First Federal, is "very representative of a community banking industry that's in transition," said Paul A. Schosberg, the 2,000-member group's full-time president. "A lot of people can identify with her, and that's what you look for in a leader."

Ms. Beard, 47, will be the first woman to lead the six-year-old, group, and only the third to lead a national thrift trade association.

Her goals for her term are largely legislative: preserving the thrift charter; eliminating the Savings Association InsuranceFund special reserve; and repealing a law that bars banks and thrifts from paying interest on business checking accounts.

But she also plans to spend much of her tenure encouraging thrifts to become more "progressive."

For example, they should be on the lookout for small-business customers who may not meet the profitability criteria of larger banks, she said. "We should not be looking to do things the way we've always done them."

Mapping the group's course is another goal. Ms. Beard revealed that for the first time America's Community Bankers has hired a consultant to help determine "what is our future and how we will meet it."

That future apparently does not include a merger with the American Bankers Association. "At this point, it's the position of the board that we should continue as an independent," she said.

Ms. Beard was raised in Silver Spring, Md., and began her banking career in 1978 at Perpetual Savings and Loan Association in nearby Washington. Nine years later, she moved on to Citizens Federal Savings Bank in Maryland, at which she had opened her first bank account when she was 5 years old.

In 1992 a headhunter called asking Ms. Beard if she would be interested in becoming First Federal's president and CEO. She was, and in 1993 she and her husband moved to Hazleton, a close-knit, working-class community in eastern Pennsylvania.

"People grow up in Hazleton, they work in Hazleton, they retire in Hazleton, and they die in Hazleton," she said.

Ms. Beard said she looks forward to spending much of the next year lobbying lawmakers and meeting policymakers back in Washington.

Among her highest priorities is the repeal of a law that on Jan. 1 requires the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. to shift money from the thrift insurance fund to a special reserve that could be tapped only after the fund itself took huge losses.

Reserves in the thrift fund now come to about 1.25% of the deposits insured. The 1996 law requires all that reserves over 1.25%-now roughly $1 billion-be shifted to this special reserve. Thrifts want all of the money to stay in the fund.

Ms. Beard will be right at home on Capitol Hill, Mr. Schosberg said. Not only is she well-grounded in the issues, he said, "she can talk the political talk ... and she is very aware of the political cross-currents that swirl around legislative issues."

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