The nation's top trust banks posted big gains in business last year, thanks to new efforts to retain customers and boost sales.

An American Banker survey found that the 50 biggest banks in the field boosted their discretionary trust assets by 22% in 1997, to $3.5 trillion. That was far ahead of the 10.2% gain of the previous year.

The very biggest players set the pace. State Street Corp., the industry leader, posted a 35% gain in discretionary assets, while No. 2. Bankers Trust Corp. was up 32%.

The increases at those companies and others topped the gains of the overall stock market-an unusual achievement in the conservative world of trusts. (Complete tables begin on page 10.)

The strong performance is clearly emboldening the leaders.

"We have broken out and become a true growth organization in the money management and trust business," said Christopher W. "Kip" Condron, president of Mellon Bank Corp.'s lead bank.

For the top 50, growth was evident not only in discretionary assets but in all fiduciary trust, including such businesses as retirement plan administration and securities processing.

Fiduciary assets managed and administered by the group increased 28% last year, to $18.3 trillion. That was up from 10% the previous year and essentially the same as in 1995.

Many bankers attributed the gains to better selling and client retention.

"We have done a much better job of focusing on client services and sales processes than we've ever done before over the last three to five years," said Garrett H. Jamison, president and chief executive officer of fiduciary and specialized services group at Banc One Corp.

"What were seeing know are the fruits of that labor," he added.

"It's primarily fundamental growth in new business," said Ronald L. O'Kelley, chief financial officer of State Street, explaining his company's increases. "Eighty percent of all the new business tends to be from existing customer relations."

Nodding to the strength of the bull market in stocks, he credited market performance with half of overall growth. State Street, which has an enormous index fund business, had added several actively managed investment products to its mix.

"It's clear that index funds have grown very rapidly, but active (ones) have taken off as well," Mr. O'Kelley said. He added that the company was helped by inflows to mutual funds both here and abroad.

Last year the Standard & Poor's 500 index climbed 31% and the Dow Jones industrial average rose 22.6%. Lehman Brothers Aggregate Bond Index held steady at 9.65%.

Some banks, such as Bankers Trust, augmented their sales efforts with acquisitions.

"The acquisition of a trust portfolio from NationsBank certainly helped," said Jeremiah H. Chafkin, a Bankers Trust managing director who heads investment management for global institutional services. The deal added $133 billion to assets administered.

"A softer explanation, but also valid, is the increasing credibility of banks as money managers," Mr. Chafkin said. "The reality is overtaking the perception."

Mr. Condron of Mellon said his company posted important gains in several areas, including institutional asset management and personal trust. He singled out Dreyfus Corp., Mellon's mutual fund unit, for rapidly increasing stock fund assets.

The upshot of such gains: The top 50 banks in the field increased their gross trust income by 16% in 1997, compared with 12% in 1996, the survey found.

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