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CHALLENGE SEEKER BOWEN HELPS LEAD FIRST AMERICAN AMID INDUSTRY TURBULENCE

CHALLENGE SEEKER BOWEN HELPS LEAD FIRST AMERICAN AMID INDUSTRY TURBULENCE

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Sometimes just staying even is an impressive achievement in itself.

Despite reams of bad publicity about the S&L industry, Greensboro-based First American Savings Bank says its deposits remained stable in 1989.Despite operating with far less capital than required by regulators, the state's second largest thrift earned a profit from operations for the fifth consecutive year.

People like Linwood Bowen are behind those results, which many S&Ls would love to duplicate.

``We have a young management team that is looking for creative ways to do things,' said Bowen, who as area executive is responsible for First American's four Greensboro branches. ``This is no place to play it safe. We're always turning the rocks over to see what we can find.'

Doing things that aren't too safe isn't too unusual for Bowen, a native of Rocky Mount. In 1974 he took time off from schooling at N.C. State University to enlist in the U.S. Army. At the time, the Vietnam War was winding down and the unpopularity of the military was at its zenith.

But Bowen, 36, wanted a challenge, the opportunity to see foreign countries and the education benefits stemming from military service. First, of course, he had to survive basic training at Fort Jackson near Columbia, S.C., which was quite different than cheering the Wolfpack at Reynolds Coliseum.

``You have to remember that in 1974 they could use profanity and abuse you in ways that they can't anymore,' he said. ``It was a chance to test your physical and mental fitness.'

Bowen and his wife, Arneice, spent most of the next four years in Ansbach, West Germany, where he managed classified military information. Getting to see Europe was an experience ``I wouldn't trade for anything,' he said.

After his discharge, Bowen completed his studies at N.C. State and accepted a job with Planters, a mid-sized bank that mainly operates in eastern North Carolina. He enjoyed his work, but decided to change positions when his wife secured a job at the library at N.C. State A&T University.

For the first year, the couple commuted every day to Greensboro from Raleigh. Bowen says the two hours of driving time helped bind the couple closer. But the commute got too taxing and the couple now lives in southeast Guilford County in the Linwood Lakes neighborhood.

First American hired Bowen in 1987 to manage the S&L's Randleman Road branch. Eighteen months later, Chief Executive Officer Jim Bethel and Vice President Everett Wells promoted Bowen to area executive responsible for four city branches.

``When I took the job in 1987, it was the furthest thing from my mind that I would become area executive so quickly,' he said.

``We were attracted by Linwood's strength of personality,' Bethel said. ``He has a fantastic attitude and the leadership skills needed to motivate other people.'

Bowen practices his leadership development skills during a weekend every month at Fort Bragg, where he serves as an instructor in a Army Reserves' leader development program.

One of those motivated by Bowen says his leadership isn't militaristic.

``Linwood has a very laidback management style,' says Don Scarborough, branch manager at First American's Randleman Road office. ``If you are supposed to produce a report by Friday, he doesn't hound you every day. He just lets you know that he expects it to be done by Friday.'

Numbers tell much of the story in banking, however, and producing better results every month is Bowen's main challenge.

``The bank looks at each area as a profit center and we are always pushing for account growth and increased loan production,' he said.

Unlike many other capital-poor S&Ls, First American has not priced its interest rates on certificates of deposits at high levels in an effort to lure money. Rather, the S&L tries to price its rates in the ``middle of the pack,' Bowen said.

``I think that's because we look at the market realistically,' he said. ``We realize that money coming in strictly for high rates is going to leave as soon as someone down the street offers a better deal.'

Instead, Bowen says First American is seeking a niche as a friendly place mainly for retail customers. That's not an easy challenge, with at least nine other banks and thrifts located within three blocks of Bowen's office at the Friendly Center branch.

``We won't seek the corporate account at Sears Roebuck, but we certainly will try to get the employees' business here,' he said.

The future of First American is partly in the hands of regulators because of the S&L's capital shortage. That problem is spurring increased dedication on the part of employees, Bowen believes.

``We all want this institution to succeed and we know that what we do every day has a big impact on the bottom line,' he said.

Although headquartered here, First American has a larger presence in Goldsboro, Kinston, Asheboro and Gastonia, the home cities of S&Ls that merged in 1982. The S&L picked Greensboro as its headquarters because of the city's growth potential, a move that it doesn't regret, Bowen said.

``This is a great place to live because it's such a family-oriented town,' he said. ``I've never seen a city with so many parks.'

Bowen is a member of a local Optimist Club, the Christian Business Men's Committee and the Greensboro Chamber of Commerce's community development committee. He sees greater cooperation among local cities as critical for the development of the Triad.

Making a bigger dent in Greensboro will require more First American branches, Bowen and other S&L officials say. Given the institution's finances, however, expansion is difficult.

``We'd hope that we could build our presence in the community and we think that Linwood has done a good job in helping make us a more important factor in retail banking in Greensboro,' Bethel said. ``He's done a super job.'

The main advantage First American has over its larger, better-capitalized peers is its ability to react quicker and make faster decisions, Bowen said. And that's what makes his job interesting.

``In this kind of environment I get to do a lot more things and have a lot more autonomy than if I was with a larger organization that had more bureaucracy,' he said. ``It's refreshing to work somewhere where you can call the boss 'Jim' rather than 'Mr. Bethel.' '

``We don't have a lot of layers of management and when we see a way to stimulate business, we usually can do it ... As an area executive, I don't ever get so far from the flames that I don't know how the flames feel.' PROFILE

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