Ask a typical community bank executive "What do you read in your spare time?" and he or she is likely to answer, "Spare time?"

By the time an officer has read the local press, the business press, the banking journals and papers, the memos and reports from examiners and other regulators, and the internal memos and credit evaluations, the thought of picking up something else to read is remote.

Other reading tends to be defensive - to make sure that something important hasn't been overlooked - rather than for pleasure or personal growth.

I remember one tightfisted community banker who bought the Journal of Commerce - a newspaper dedicated to commodities, shipping, and insurance. "I look only at the heating oil quote," he said. "And if the market price is a tenth of a cent less than our dealer is charging us, I demand a refund. One day's refund can often pay for several years of the Journal of Commerce."

I might mention that a banker once told me that something I wrote in my column saved him a million dollars.

What was it?

I had written about the days when capital requirements were a little more subjective than they are today. I counseled that if the examiner says you need more capital but you feel you have adequate capitalization, "Bite, scream, kick, complain, and explain your position, and he will go away."

The banker reported, "I did, and he did. And it saved us the million that the added capital he wanted would have cost."

The reason I'm writing about what bankers read is because I've had a lot of fun reading a new book, "Wriston: Walter Wriston, Citibank, and the Rise and Fall of American Financial Supremacy," by Phillip L. Zweig.

As a professor who loves history, I was fascinated reading about the successes and foibles of that unique institution and its unique former CEO.

It was like being a fly on the wall as some decisions that changed our industry were carved out.

Now, most community bankers probably wouldn't share my interests in reading about the scandals of the 1920s and the international difficulties that Citibank faced in its expansion program.

But the sections on Citibank's battles with community banks and how they won hands-down in the competition for market share provide solid guidance for future - plus warm feelings of "I told you so."

Mr. Zweig offers the following relevant observations:

*Citibank learned, when it moved upstate in New York, that there is no more powerful monopoly than the local banker.

*The local banks kept these monopolies by reacting to Citibank's expansion with aggressive pricing and innovative lending terms.

*Citi also learned that it takes excessively expensive marketing to gain a toehold in a community where people are loyal to their local banks.

*Most important - Citi shot itself in the foot by regularly changing management strategies and personnel in a market in which people value consistency.

The result: "Citibank ended up with piles of bum loans to small and midsize companies that had been rejected for credit by more knowledgeable local banks."

As one local CEO was quoted by Mr. Zweig, "the Citicorp guy is there for two years, then he's gone. In a big organization a person who has not moved in two years is not going to make it."

I think any community banker with the good fortune to know what "spare reading time" means would find "Wriston" worthwhile. It's a seven-year study of banking and its development, by a Business Week editor who used to work for this newspaper. It is exhaustive and yet written in an interesting, nonacademic style.

And for community bankers wondering whether they'll be swamped by larger rivals, the book offers this good news: Most of the top Citi officers Phil Zweig interviewed don't seem to think so.

Mr. Nadler is a contributing editor of the American Banker and professor of finance at Rutgers University Graduate School of Management.

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