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The next Larry Fish?

Who is the next Larry Fish?

Fish, chief executive of the $148 billion Citizens Financial Group and the man who built it into the nation's eighth-largest banking company, isn't going anywhere soon. But Fish, 61, won't be there forever, either, and you would have had to look long and hard for clues as to who was in front of the line to succeed him. Until recently.

An executive shuffle at Citizens two months ago named Steve Steinour as the company's new president, a title relinquished by Fish himself. Steinour, based in Philadelphia, had been one of three Citizens vice chairmen responsible for big regional chunks of the company's banking franchise. One other important detail: The banking real estate that had once been divided between three Citizens executives is now managed by two.

Bob Mahoney, the vice chairman who has been responsible for the big Citizens New England franchise, continues to oversee the same territory. And now Steinour manages everything else on the map.

The third executive in the picture was Tom Hollister, a popular Boston banker who had been promoted to vice chairman and dispatched to his native Cleveland for an important job last year. He was selected to integrate and manage the giant banking business that came with Citizens' $10.5 billion purchase of Charter One Financial Inc., a new western frontier for the franchise covering places like Ohio, Michigan, and Illinois.

Citizens insists that job went well, but Hollister was brought back to Boston just 17 months later for an assignment running a relatively obscure private-equity subsidiary, and Steinour was handed responsibility for the entire Charter One territory.

Inside a company so focused on its geographic footprint, that was a land grab rivaling the Louisiana Purchase. It also coincided with Steinour's promotion.

Citizens officials say there is scarcely anything to read into Steinour's elevation or Hollister's reassignment. The official line: Citizens grew dramatically as a result of its Charter One purchase and has been reorganizing to manage a much bigger business.

They downplayed any succession talk, but declined to put Steinour on the phone with me. Later, they offered a statement from Fish hailing the conversion of the Charter One banking franchise and describing the redrawn Citizens map as a 50-50 split between Steinour and Mahoney. ''The Citizens board and I review succession plans on an annual basis, and I am very fortunate to have a great team supporting me," Fish said in the statement.

What it didn't say: One member of the team is the president of the company now. It's pretty hard to get around that.

Steinour, who joined Citizens 13 years ago, was considered an accomplished executive but managed functions that didn't come with a lot of public visibility. That changed when he was selected to run Citizens' franchise expansion south of New England, anchored in Pennsylvania by the retail banking operation it purchased from Mellon Corp. for $2 billion in 2001.

For a manager accustomed to working on the inside of a big company, Steinour became a very successful public face for Citizens in a new region. He became a welcome newcomer in local business circles. Citizens committed $95 million for the naming rights to the Philadelphia Phillies new ballpark and created a $100 million loan program that plugged into a job-creation theme promoted heavily by Pennsylvania Governor Edward G. Rendell.

The success of the Citizens' expansion into Pennsylvania is a good reason to choose Steinour to oversee the company's push into another part of the country.

Larry Fish isn't going anywhere soon, and the decision on his successor will be made not in Boston but in Edinburgh, the home of Citizens' parent, the Royal Bank of Scotland. But a favorite has just emerged.

Steven Syre is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at syre@globe.com.

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