From his headquarters in Lake Success, N.Y., Astoria Financial Corp. chairman George L. Engelke is savoring his latest victory-and planning his next deal.
The $1.8 billion deal to buy Long Island Bancorp "establishes us as a future strong acquirer with a dominant and growing position in our marketplace," Mr. Engelke said.
That marketplace-suburbs east and north of New York plus the city's boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens-is affluent and highly fragmented, with no single institution holding more than 10% of deposits.
That leaves plenty of prospects for an established acquirer like Astoria, which would have $16.7 billion of assets after the Long Island Bancorp deal closes this fall.
"Our vision is to keep on the consolidation trail," Mr. Engelke said. "We always have a plate full, and a mind full of possibilities."
Mr. Engelke, pronounced "En-gel-kay," declined to discuss specific quarry, but he's been in the business long enough-more than 25 years-to have established an approach.
He leans toward thrifts that have solid reputations in their communities but may not be realizing their potential, analysts said. The deal in April for Long Island Bancorp, which has $6.2 billion of assets, is his most gratifying so far, Mr. Engelke said.
"He's obviously an aggressive buyer," said John Kanas, chairman of North Fork Bancorp, another active buyer who bid on Long Island Bancorp. "Time will tell whether or not he's made the right decisions."
Indeed, by focusing on growth in the relatively small suburban areas near New York City, Astoria is increasing its reliance on a single market, and that can be hazardous, said Martin Friedman, principal at Friedman, Billings, Ramsey & Co.
Many residents are employed in the mercurial financial services markets of Wall Street. Or they work on Long Island, which is still trying to break a dependency on defense contracting.
Also, Astoria, like other thrift companies, remains prey to the flat yield curve that can cause people to pay off loans early and leave Astoria with lesser returns on alternative investments.
But Mr. Engelke has weathered these cycles in the past, and he said more purchases would only increase Astoria's efficiencies.
Among institutions in his area, Emigrant Savings Bank, with $6 billion of assets, is often mentioned as a takeout target, though bank chief executives familiar with the operation say management has set too high a price for the closely held institution.
Two other highly regarded thrifts, Roslyn Savings Bank, with $3.1 billion of assets, and Dime Savings Bank of Williamsburgh, with $1.2 billion, fall within the sweep of Mr. Engelke's radar.
There is even the prospect of a merger with a sizable peer. Astoria could team up with one of the area's other two large thrifts, Dime Bancorp, with $20 billion of assets, or GreenPoint Financial Corp., with $13.2 billion.
But those who know Mr. Engelke don't expect such a combination soon. "Maybe there would be a merger of equals at some point, but right now I don't think George is ready to give up the reins of power," said Thomas Theurkauf, banking analyst at Keefe, Bruyette & Woods Inc.
Mr. Engelke is indeed primed for competition, say his rivals. His company is a formidable mortgage lender and, though it is a thrift, is building relationships with the business community through lending and checking programs.
"He's been very intensive about growing that institution," said the chairman of a local commercial bank.
Mr. Engelke said he recognizes that the more successful Astoria becomes, the greater its appeal as an acquisition target. Tidal shifts in the industry "make us extremely attractive to an off-Island acquirer that wants to establish a presence here," he said.
The company could also be a prize for banking companies that already operate in the area. That's because Astoria and Mr. Engelke are deeply tied to their communities, which produces the kind of customer loyalty big banks seek.
Mr. Engelke, chairman of Astoria since last year and president and chief executive since 1989, joined it in 1971 after nine years as the company's outside accountant.
He has a reputation for being good with people and even better with numbers.
"He's a very open, accessible guy who likes to have a good time," said Paul Schosberg, president of America's Community Bankers. "At the same time, he's a dynamic businessman-a true strategic thinker."
Mr. Engelke's drive and attention personify the approach thrifts must take in the rigorous business climate, Mr. Schosberg said. "When you talk about the future of the thrift industry, he's it."
By all accounts, the future includes a more competitive merger environment. This was evidenced by the highly contested battle for Long Island Bancorp.
The bidding war pitted area bank chiefs against each other and prompted Long Island Bancorp's board to flee the state at one point.
The departure-an attempt to stem a stream of leaks about their deliberations-led to a resort in Orlando and a decision to sell to Astoria.
Though executives at Long Island Bancorp continue to refuse to comment on the decision and their apparent rejection of a higher bid by North Fork, Mr. Engelke offered some insights.
"Money is never the only issue," he said of merger negotiations. "There's always a lot of personal pride tied up in it."
That's why Mr. Engelke is making room for top management of Long Island Bancorp, including president John J. Conefry, who is to stay on as a vice chairman.
There is also the perceived growth potential of the stock that will be used to fund the purchase. Both Astoria and Long Island Bancorp have goodwill claims against the government that seem likely to put a premium on their shares.
The goodwill settlement would benefit big shareholders who have supported the stock as well as the thrifts' employee stock ownership plan.
Mr. Engelke mixes corporate perks like the ESOP with folksy touches, such as an annual company picnic, to keep morale high. His latest project: finding a hall big enough to accommodate the combined staffs of Astoria and Long Island Bancorp for this year's Christmas party.
Such personal touches have even been emulated by Mr. Engelke's staff. He recently learned that some Astoria employees, on their own time, were going into Long Island Bancorp branches to introduce themselves to their new colleagues.