Allen Sanborn, a former head of commercial lending at Shawmut National Corp., has moved on to tackle credit problems from a different vantage point.

He recently became the first ex-banker to serve as chief executive of Robert Morris Associates, the 81-year-old professional organization for bank loan and credit officers. He replaced Clarence Reed, who retired after 37 years.

It didn't take Mr. Sanborn long to understand the pressures facing his trade group as it tries to position itself in a consolidating industry.

"Clearly, we will be challenged," he said in a recent interview at the group's Philadelphia headquarters. "Of the top 100 banks, we deal with 93. Every time there's a merger, it's likely that we're going to lose a member."

Robert Morris Associates has seen some growth in individual, or "associate," memberships, from 14,044 in 1987 to 17,577. But over the same period, the institutions affiliated with the organization - which takes its name from the top financier of the American Revolution - have dropped from 3,066 to 2,934.

Compounding the problem, associate members each pay just $37.50 in annual dues, while a member bank shells out bigger money based on its size: from $360 per year for those with assets under $20 million, to $14,853 for those with assets of $50 billion or more.

Revenue-raising is a big issue for the association, which has a 1995 budget of $16 million and a staff of 95.

Nearly 25% of Robert Morris Associates' income comes from member dues. The rest comes from goods and services sold to members. When he arrived in September as president and chief executive officer, Mr. Sanborn said he would focus on "member relations" - making sure Robert Morris gives its "customers" what they want and need.

Mr. Sanborn himself is a victim of consolidation. The 53-year-old Maryland native spent 20 years working his way up the lending ladder to vice chairman at BankAmerica Corp., only to be pushed out in 1991 when it merged with Security Pacific Corp.

"I've spent 29 years in this industry," he said. "I went through the BofA turnaround. I've seen the tough side of credit.

"From my standpoint, this is kind of an exciting platform," he said. "I've been in the industry long enough to see the errors that we've made."

Not one to spend a lot of time pondering the logic of a megamerger in which the target bank is riddled credit quality problems, Mr. Sanborn picked himself up and moved across the country to become a vice chairman at Shawmut.

But that soon proved difficult, too. Not long after Mr. Sanborn arrived, the bank's tough-minded chairman, Joel Alvord, moved his office from Hartford, Conn., to Boston, where Mr. Sanborn had been based.

"When Joel decided to move to Boston, there really wasn't enough room for two people of that stature in Massachusetts," said John Platte, managing director of the regional bank practice at Russell Reynolds Associates, the New York headhunting firm that helped Robert Morris Associates hire Mr. Sanborn.

Aside from the close quarters in Boston, there were other problems at Shawmut for Mr. Sanborn, who is described by those who know him as affable and easygoing.

Analysts said his laid-back style didn't seem aggressive enough to lead a commercial-lending charge in the highly competitive New England market. And Mr. Sanborn's efforts to encourage Mr. Alvord to sell the bank were not particularly appreciated.

Mr. Sanborn left Shawmut in 1994. The bank announced a merger agreement with Fleet Financial Group less than a year later.

Mr. Sanborn is hardly a naysayer on the consolidation trend.

The United States is "overbanked compared to other countries," he pointed out. "The reality is that with technology requirements, there is heavy investment required. It makes more sense to do it when you have a bigger revenue and capital base."

But there's no question that the acquisition binge has had its downside for Robert Morris. But the trade group is big on survival strategies.

Reaching outside the banking industry for new members is one way for Robert Morris Associates to deal with its changing marketplace. The association now welcomes finance companies into its ranks, as well as quasigovernmental agencies like the Small Business Administration and the Federal National Mortgage Association.

And it intends to keep encouraging staff members at the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, the Federal Reserve, and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. to come on board.

In fact, facilitating discussion between regulators and bankers is one of the four goals of Robert Morris. The others are to provide training on credit quality issues, encourage communication among lending officers at different institutions, and to make industrywide data available to bankers on variables like delinquency rates.

"We think anything we can do that generates constructive discussion between our members and regulators is a good thing," Mr. Sanborn said. "We've had Federal Reserve members for 20 years. At many of our roundtables, senior representatives from the federal government take part."

Some will be present Nov. 12-14 when Robert Morris Associates holds its annual convention in Phoenix. The group has chosen technology as the meeting's theme and futurist Daniel Burrus, the author of "Technotrends," as keynote speaker.

Mr. Sanborn admitted to being not much of a futurist himself, although he said he thought the address was bound to be provocative. His vision of the banking industry 10 years from now is not quite as apocalyptic as some observers'.

"There are still going to be lots of banks around and there will still be branches," he said. "There will be a lot of alternative delivery too. There will be a role for the management of the quality of those assets.

"The loans may be held by different groups, but they will still be there. It seems to me that all of us understand the world is changing."

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