PHILADELPHIA BANKER FAL DE Saint Phalle is on his way up in a job that used to lead nowhere but down or out. Just a decade ago, says de Saint Phalle, small-business lending at Fidelity Bank N.A., which has $6 billion in assets, was "an unfocused, low-visibility position, a place where leftovers ended up." Now it's a fast-track position, in which loan officers enjoy pay, prestige, and power beginning to approach that of their colleagues in the international and large corporate divisions.

This isn't just the Philadelphia story. Banks are "surging around the country seeking the profits of small and mid-market lending," says banking consultant David C. Cates. "But if you want to be in a field, you have to make it attractive for good people to work in it."

Which is just what many banks across the country are doing. It's happening at such mammoths as $215-billion Bank of America as well as at such growing regional banks as Fidelity and $6-billion Florida National Bank. In 1984, Florida National created a discrete small-business banking division offering salaries, titles, and management opportunities equal to those available in large corporate lending. The new division's portfolio shows 3,000 loans -- up about 30% from this time last year -- and accounts for more than $300 million of the bank's $3.8-billion total loan portfolio.

In 1982, Bank of America tried a similar experiment. Its mid-market ($5 million to $250 million in yearly sales) loan portfolio, worth $3.5 billion at the end of its first year, stands at about $5 billion today, moving from 4.7% to 6% of the bank's aggregate portfolio. So pleased is the California-based bank that it has recently created a fast-track career path for bankers -- at present, 635 small-business loan officers -- lending to companies with annual revenues of $5 million or more. Says Scott A. Kisting, senior vice-president in charge of corporate banking operations, "Everybody's going to be doing this."