Cairns' Knowledge of Funds Transfer May Add New Ideas to ABA Presidency; Peoples Bancorp. Chief Helped Refine Electronic Systems in Northwest

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NEW YORK -- It is traditional for the president-elect of the American Bankers Association, in the year before he steps up to the presidency, to travel the country giving speeches about the key issues facing the industry and its lobbyists in Washington. The year of the president-elect gives the nation's commercial bankers an opportunity to measure the man who will be their chief public spokesman during the ensuing year.

James G. Cairns Jr. relished the chance to introduce himself and his outlook at numerous conferences and seminars over the last 12 months. He openly called attention to two personal attributes -- his age, 47, and his experience, which has been more in bank operations than in lending. No other ABA elected leader has taken office so young, nor has any previous president matched Mr. Cairns' operational credentials.

The subtext is that this ABA president is going to be different, not in a revolutionary way but in the tools and background he brings to the job. It should be an apt reflection of how banking has changed. Appropriate considering this is the year that John Reed, who "never made a loan," became chairman of the nation's largest bank holding company, Citicorp.

It is also customary for the office of ABA president to alternate years between a "small banker" and a "big banker," just so the 13,000-plus association members don't forget that they are a diverse community open to the ideas of both ends of the spectrum.

When the torch of ABA president passes to Mr. Cairns on Monday at the trade association's annual convention in New York, it will be a "big banker's" turn in the top spot. Mr. Cairns is president of Peoples Bancorp., Seattle, and its principal subsidiary, Peoples National Bank. Unexpected Dichotomy

Mr. Cairns will be taking the place of C. Robert Brenton, president of Brenton Banks Inc., a Des Moines holding company, who hails from one of the capitals of country banking.

But there is a dichotomy in size and location that one would not expect. Consolidated assets of the Brenton Banks fell just shy of $1 billion at mid-year, hardly a number one would associate with smallness. Peoples Bancorp.'s assets only slightly exceed $2 billion, hardly a number that one would associate with money-center power.

There is further convergence between these two ABA presidents. Brenton Banks is closely associated with the family whose name it bears. Peoples, too, is largely a family enterprise, still 42% controlled by the family of its chairman and chief executive officer, Joshua Green 3d. For this reason, Peoples "has many of the characteristics of a small bank. The future is as bright as you want it to be," Mr. Cairns said in a recent interview with Transition magazine.

Also, Mr. Brenton and Mr. Cairns share an avid interest in electronic funds transfer technology.

Mr. Cairns, though not recognized as such outside the Pacific Northwest, is a bona fide electronic payment systems pioneer. He was closely involved with the group that installed the first shared automated teller machine in the United States, which opened in the Seattle suburb of Bellevue in April 1974. More recently he helped negotiate the Northwest's first extensive agreement for deploying shared ATMs in supermarkets.

Mr. Brenton is not the operations pioneer that Mr. Cairns is, but he was an early and enthusiastic supporter of the Iowa Transfer System, one of the first comprehensive, statewide EFT systems of the mid-1970s. ITS has since blossomed into one of the most successful regional networks, its central switch now recording close to one million transactions per month. Mr. Brenton is a past chairman of ITS Inc., the Iowa banks' EFT operating corporation. Greater Consideration of EFT?

Having an EFT payment systems maven at the ABA helm for 1984-85 is a hopeful sign to bankers active in that realm. In the past they complained that their issues and concerns habitually were ignored by old-line bankers who knew little or cared little about the need to preserve banking's control over payment mechanisms. …