but aren't feasting on them yet. The carving up of First Interstate's customer base has become a distinct possibility as the Los Angeles-based bank struggles with an unwanted acquisition bid by Wells Fargo & Co. and plans to merge with Minneapolis- based First Bank System Inc. Indeed, Raphael Soifer, with Brown Brothers Harriman & Co., wrote recently that "the greatest danger we see for all three participants in this contest ... is that a lengthy period of uncertainty over control would inevitably damage the value of First Interstate's franchise." But First Interstate spokeswoman Shirly Hosoi said that so far the bank has no data or even anecdotal evidence suggesting that its business is suffering, or that its employees are leaving. Executives at many of First Interstate's competitors agreed. "Corporate uncertainty is not a customer event," said Richard C. Hartnack, vice chairman of San Francisco-based Union Bank. "Therefore it doesn't drive customer behaviors." But Mr. Hartnack and other bankers added that they see big opportunities to pick up business from First Interstate once a merger is completed, especially if the winning suitor is San Francisco-based Wells Fargo. An in- market merger would almost certainly result in more branch closings and layoffs, and thus cause more disruption for customers. "The Wells deal puts more customers in play," Mr. Hartnack said. As a result, western banks are gearing up for a bonanza. While most are only in the early stages of planning their attacks, at least one big thrift, Glendale Federal Bank, has already hit the warpath. In keeping with a year-old advertising strategy of attacking California's biggest banks for allegedly shoddy service, the Southern California thrift has begun running a couple of radio commercials clearly aimed at First Interstate customers, though neither mentions the bank by name. In one, a woman says: "It's finally happening. My big bank is merging with another big bank." She then notes that her bank insists she "won't even notice a thing." Then she runs through a litany of things she's not supposed to notice - including branch closings, canceling her credit cards, hiking her monthly fees, and firing "a bunch of people." "I think they're right," she says. "I won't even notice a thing." No other big banks have come out fighting with such sarcasm. But they're still planning to go after First Interstate customers. For example, Gene Galloway, executive vice president of retail banking at Sanwa Bank California, said his bank is developing a data base of First Interstate retail customers that will be used for direct mail and telemarketing efforts. On the commercial side, Gary Duim, executive vice president of corporate banking for Portland, Ore.-based U.S. Bancorp, said his company is asking loan officers to put First Interstate customers at the top of their prospecting lists. While no big wins have been tallied yet, he expects some to be forthcoming. One reason is that research by Greenwich Associates, a Connecticut-based research firm, indicates that the opportunities to pick up business from merging banks are vast.
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