Bank of the West, a $4.9 billion-asset subsidiary of Banque Nationale de Paris, recently created a business banking division with six new offices.

"We're trying to capitalize on the changes in the marketplace," said Scott Germer, senior vice president in charge of the new division. "That's the main thrust behind this."

The San Francisco bank believes the middle-market business sector is up for grabs in the wake of several large bank mergers, most notably Wells Fargo & Co.'s acquisition of First Interstate Bancorp this spring.

Another marketplace change is the state's rebounding economy, which is enlarging what for several years was a static or even declining loan pool, analysts said.

"The acquisitions shake loose a lot of people, both customers and loan officers," said Jay Tejera, analyst at Dain Bosworth Inc. "And of course, Wells is being true to form by trimming its staff in this area."

The recent performance of $2.5 billion-asset WestAmerica Bancorp. in nearby San Rafael is a case in point. While the bank's middle-market loan portfolio had been "flat as a pancake" in recent years, it's now producing high single-digit growth compared with last year, said Mr. Tejera.

"I would say there are definitely a lot of opportunities out there now," said Joe Bowler, senior vice president at WestAmerica. "Our loan growth is about twice the pace of a year ago."

U.S. Bancorp, Portland, Ore., and Comerica Inc., Detroit, have also made strides in the Bay Area recently. U.S. Bancorp bought California Bancshares Inc. of San Ramon last spring, primarily to beef up its middle-market business lending.

The six new offices of Bank of the West, all within 250 miles of San Francisco, will cater to companies seeking loans in the $500,000 to $25 million range. The bank said it would offer a full range of business products, including inventory working capital, lines of credit, standby letters of credit, accounts receivable services, and other loan products.

The division employs 35 senior loan officers and support workers in the six new offices, most of which are adjacent to existing branches. The offices are in Oakland, Petaluma, Burlingame, San Jose, Fresno, and Sacramento.

"If you queried any of our competitors, they would say they are relationship-oriented," said Mr. Germer, "but some of the things they are doing belie that. It's hard to be relationship-driven when you are closing branches."

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