U.S. agriculture lenders are closely watching Rabobank Nederland's fast-paced expansion in agribusiness lending in this country.

The Dutch bank has amassed more than $10 billion of assets in the United States since it arrived in 1981.

And Rabobank has no less ambitous plans for further growth in North America. It wants to double its presence in five to seven years, said Dennis J. Ziengs, executive vice president and general manager of Rabobank's North American operations.

Darcy Myers, vice president and agribusiness manager of $6 billion Norwest Bank Colorado, isn't surprised. "I think there were some questions when they came to this country on whether they had an interest in being here long-term," he said. "I think they will be here for quite a while."

The U.S. operations of Rabobank - the holding company has $175 billion in assets worldwide - focus on financing large-scale agriculture and other aspects of producing food and fiber products.

Rabobank, the second-largest bank in the Netherlands, opened its first overseas location in New York in 1981.

It since has added offices in Dallas, San Francisco, Chicago, and Atlanta, and has customers in about 48 states, Mr. Ziengs said. A Mexico City office opened in 1993, and a Toronto one is planned for this year.

The company currently has 74 offices in 26 countries, he said.

At a recent agriculture lending conference, Gordon Arnold, a vice president in Rabobank's Dallas office, said the company's tight focus is why U.S. operations have grown so fast. "We do a few things well, and we understand what we are and what we are not," he said.

About two-thirds of Rabobank's U.S. lending is to agribusiness. Other industries it finances include health care, utilities, and telecommunications.

Typical agribusiness credits are at least $5 million and frequently are participations with other lenders, according to the company.

"Rabobank is interesting in that they're both a partner and a competitor with most big banks," said Mr. Myers, who called his main agriculture lending competition other large commercial banks, the Farm Credit System, then Rabobank.

"Not a lot of banks have credits over $10 million," said Mr. Myers, who also has participated in loans with Rabobank. "That's where Rabobank can be the most aggressive."

Because Rabobank can't offer customers operating services such as checking or trust accounts, "that's where some of the partnership come in," Mr. Myers said.

A spokeswoman for CoBank, a Farm Credit System lender in Denver, said that while Rabobank is a competitor, CoBank has several loan participations with it. The two have "been working on developing a closer relationship' to use each other's expertise and relationships," she said.

As with any nonbank lender, bankers note the differences in Rabobank's funding sources and regulations.

"They have some competitive advantages," Mr. Myers said. "They go directly to the European overnight funding markets. Because they can sometimes have a lower cost of funds, they can be very competitive, rate- wise."

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