Managing banks in times of upheaval can certainly carry big rewards.

The nation's 100 highest-paid bankers received 24% more in salary and bonuses last year than in 1994, according to a study prepared for the American Banker by SNL Securities, Charlottesville, Va. That increase is a big jump from the 8% average raise top bankers earned in 1994. (Complete tables begin on page 10.)

Many of the highest-paid bankers in the country were those who were close to retirement in 1995. Others hit pay dirt when exiting merger situations.

Joel Alvord, the chairman of Fleet Financial Group, is a case in point. Mr. Alvord was the top gainer in annual compensation, which comprises salary and bonuses. After selling Shawmut National Corp. to Fleet in November 1995, Mr. Alvord announced that he would be retiring from the merged company late this year. He received $4 million last year, a 162% increase from his 1994 compensation.

The biggest winner was Richard M. Rosenberg, former chairman of BankAmerica Corp., who retired on May 23. He was the top earner for 1995 in total compensation - which includes not only salary and bonuses but long- term compensation, such as multiyear performance awards and restricted stock awards. He earned nearly $12 million.

Strip away long-term compensation and J. Carter Bacot, Bank of New York's chairman, was the industry leader. He earned $4.73 million in salary and bonus.

Executive compensation consultants and job placement experts warned that bankers cannot expect to do so well in the future. "Pressure on bank margins is going to increase," said John Platte, managing director of the regional banking practice at Russell Reynolds Associates in New York. "The slowdown in growth will be reflected in compensation."

Some executive recruiters said they've already seen a flat-to-down trend in hiring at the top level of banking, where salaries are more than $150,000 per year. This suggests that the industry has hit a peak in its economic cycle, they added.

"Banks are in a very difficult position," said David Cates, who is head of the financial services compensation practice at San Francisco-based consultant Towers Perrin. "They are coming off an exceptionally strong year."

But many banks are facing grave threats as large retail brokerages and mutual fund companies challenge them for their core business. The rise of electronic banking adds further uncertainty.

"It's going to be increasingly difficult for banks to create earnings momentum and growth. I think you may well see a decline in executive pay except at those organizations that become the winners," he added.

During the mid-1990s, commercial bankers at the country's largest institutions are raking in multimillion-dollar compensation packages. And top pay is not only going to the top dog. Chief information officers, top marketers, and heads of consumer banking, are also bringing in the dough.

Jay Gaines, who runs a New York-based recruiting firm, called these executives "mission critical" employees. "Those people are increasingly becoming more expensive, not only in terms of salaries, but in terms of stock, restricted stock, and stock options," he said.

This is in sharp contrast to the 1980s, when it was difficult to find a commercial banker who made a seven-figure salary. One trend that continued in 1995 is the effort by compensation committees and bank boards of directors to link pay packages to financial performance. Bankers can make more now, partially because so much of their reward is coming in stock or options, with a long-term payout.

But the impact of mergers becomes even more stark in this situation. Because so much pay is linked to stock price, and because shares often rise after a large merger is announced, bankers are encouraged by the structure of current compensation packages to pursue deals, experts said.

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