The Spotted Owls Of Banking

What's happening to all the bank presidents? There have been plenty of personnel casualties in the surge of bank mergers, restructurings, and reshufflings. But what's surprising is that the normally august post of president is disappearing--or at least becoming risky.

Look at the evidence. When First Chicago Corp. announced its intention of merging with NBD Bancorp on July 12, CEO Richard L. Thomas extolled the combination's dominance of the local small-business market, its capital strength, and more. But Leo F. Mullin, president of First Chicago and the man many thought would eventually run the place, won't be around to participate in the action. He will be leaving once the deal has been completed. "My own aspirations will have to be realized elsewhere," Mullin says.

"HAZARDOUS." At Bankers Trust New York Corp., after Chairman and CEO Charles S. Sanford Jr. announced his plan to retire next year, the board said it would conduct a wide-ranging search for a successor rather than simply name President Eugene B. Shanks Jr., until then the heir apparent, to the job. At J.P. Morgan & Co., the new CEO, Douglas A. Warner III, is chairman, CEO, and president all in one. Chase Manhattan Corp. did not replace President Arthur F. Ryan when he left last October to run Prudential Insurance Co. Ditto Citibank, after President Richard S. Braddock left in 1992.

Why do bank presidents seem to be a dying breed? Some say banks, long known for their bloated executive ranks and hierarchical structures, want to become leaner and flatter. What better way to demonstrate that than axing No.2? But Thomas S. Johnson has another idea. He says that with banks focusing on a few key businesses, it makes more sense to have what amount to chief executives of each business instead of an overall deputy to the top gun. "Being No.2 is a hazardous occupation, especially in a period of change," he says.

Johnson should know. He was president of Manufacturers Hanover Corp. in 1991 when that bank merged with Chemical Bank, and he was not included in the succession plan. Today, he is chairman and CEO of GreenPoint Financial in Queens. Is he planning to name a president? Not anytime soon, he says.

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