Succession Politics: Who's Really in Race to Take Alexander's Job and Run the ABA; President Cairns Tells Industry People, 'If You Want the Job, Call Me.' (Willis Alexander, American Bankers Association, James G. Cairns)

Article excerpt

WASHINGTON -- How about Gerald Lowrie? What about Lee Gunder-son? Then there's James Murphy, isn't there? Or Neil Milner, Robert E. Harris, Thomas B. Shriver -- or even James Carins? Maybe a William Isaac -- or a John Tower?

The rumor mill here is grinding out names briskly these days as speculation abounds over who will succeed Willis Alexander in his 15-year role as the capital's "Mr. Banking" -- the executive vice president and chief of staff of the American Bankers Association.

Potential candidates surface wherever one might care to look. But in an informal survey of bankers, the name of this game is rapidly becoming, "Who has the political clout, the banking industry's backing, and the simple inclination to compete for the ABA throne with Mr. Alexander's chosen heir-apparent, Gerald Lowrie, 49, a 16-year veteran of the organization and executive director of its powerful government relations division?"

As if to honor this transition, for the first time in 15 years the ABA has consolidated its executive structure -- a move viewed by some with suspicion and skepticism. What the restructuring means, some observers say, is that the future direction of the ABA, including the choice of its leader, will be made by a small clique of bankers.

Among these power brokers, none is more influential than James G. Cairns, president of Seattle's Peoples National Bank and the ABA's elected president of less than a month. Largely responsible for the internal reorganization of the ABA, Mr. Cairns also chairs a five-man "selection committee" of bankers he recently assembled to, in his words, "find the best possible person to run the ABA."

In fact, all inquiries for the position are being handled exclusively by Mr. Cairns, who insisted during an interview last week that he must be contacted personally, by letter or phone, by anyone interested in the position.

"This is going to be an absolutely honest and complete evaluation process," Mr. Cairns said. "I don't want people to get the idea that Gerald Lowrie has it locked up and that they then should not make themselves known to us".

But a former ABA staffer and lawyer who declined to be identified chides the selection committee, saying the members tend to be personal friends and longtime acquaintances of Mr. Lowrie. He said that among some ABA people there is a "distaste for the way the ABA board was restructured, being rigged to Lowrie's benefit."

Indeed, of the five men on the selection committee, at least two -- Charles A. Bruning, president of Edgewood Bank, Countryside, Ill., and former ABA president and government realtions banker William H. Kennedy Jr., chairman of the board of the National Bank of Commerce, Pine Bluff, Ark. -- are known to be close to Mr. Lowrie. And Mr. Cairns, who has worked with Mr. Lowrie firsthand as a past member of the ABA's government relations council, admits that Mr. Lowrie is "high on the list of candidates," given his backing by Mr. Alexander and his "undoubted talent."

Yet several sources in competing trade groups here characterize both Mr. Cairns and ABA president-elect Donald T. Senterfitt, Sun Banks vice chairman, as highly critical of the ABA's legislative record in recent years. They suggest that Mr. Lowrie and the strategy guiding the government relations division may be coming under greater scrutiny.

Nevertheless, said Mr. Cairns, "If we are going through this process, we are going to take the very best person that surfaces". Rounding out the selection committee are Wachovia Bank and Trust Co. president John G. Medlin Jr. and United Bank of Arizona chairman James P. Simmons. Along with Mr. Cairns, Mr. Bruning, Mr. Medlin and Mr. Simmons are members of the ABA board of directors.

To add both organization and sincerity to the hunt, Mr. Cairns has hired William Clemens, an executive director with the search firm of Russell Reynolds Associates, to help the selection committee screen and check the references of all possible candidates. …