Lest Oklahomans forget which is the largest home-based banking company in the state, Tulsa's BOK Financial Corp. wants to remind them.

The closely held BOK currently airs 10 television commercials statewide that hammer home the point. "We're not building an empire ... just a state," says one ad. "Were you just traded to a bank to be named later? Sign up with the home team," encourages another.

Every time a large multistate banking company makes an acquisition in the Sooner State, BOK wages a new us-against-them campaign.

Since Banc One Corp. bought Liberty Bancorp of Oklahoma City in June, BOK has tried to wrestle away business and retail customers from the Ohio banking company. The Banc One deal was particularly stinging because BOK had previously offered to buy Liberty, and failed.

Likewise, $5.3 billion-asset BOK pounds NationsBank Corp., the Charlotte, N.C., giant, that just barely trails BOK for the state's No. 1 deposit market share. NationsBank entered Oklahoma in January when it closed its deal for St. Louis-based Boatmen's Bancshares.

"We think we're the natural choice for companies with a preference to do business with a home-based, locally operated institution," said Stanley Lybarger, BOK's president and chief executive officer.

But Banc One officials said they've heard this story before.

"That's been the typical response to bank acquisitions for the past 25 years," said John Russell, a Banc One spokesman. "What customers are really looking for is superior products and services. There's little concern for the hometown bank anymore."

Still, BOK hopes to build on its Sooner State image. Unlike many other banking companies its size, BOK doesn't have to fear a possible takeover. It is 78%-owned by Tulsa oil executive George B. Kaiser, who bought it from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. in June 1991. He has been publicly adamant about not selling.

The company has shown steady progress over the years. It earned $47.8 million in the first nine months of 1997, a 21% increase from the year before.

Mr. Kaiser, with a net worth of $1.2 billion, says earnings from BOK helped push his net worth above $1 billion.

"That ownership position has given us an advantage," said Mr. Lybarger. "We can focus on our strategy rather than worry about analysts or public perception. We're focused on long-term objectives instead of the next quarter."

Mr. Lybarger took over as chief executive in January 1996 after Mr. Kaiser decided to relinquish the post and spend more time managing his Tulsa oil firm, Kaiser-Francis Oil Co. Mr. Lybarger's mission is to execute the strategy Mr. Kaiser began, which includes expanding in Oklahoma and the states that surround it. BOK already has a small presence in Texas-$370 million of assets-and an even smaller presence in Arkansas, $87 million of assets. Both of these markets offer BOK opportunities.

Acquisitions in Texas alone could help BOK double its asset size, Mr. Lybarger said. The company bought First National Bank of Park Cities and First Texas Bank, both of Dallas, last year. BOK's Texas strategy is to sell trust and investment products and serve small and midsize businesses. Mr. Lybarger said BOK could fit in between the very big banks and the very small in Texas.

"We felt there was a gap in Texas," Mr. Lybarger said. "We thought there was room for midsize banks in the state."

Despite the influx of big players in Oklahoma, Mr. Lybarger said, there is room for growth there too. Total commercial loans have nearly doubled at BOK in the past five years, to $1.2 billion, and most of that was Oklahoma business, he noted.

In addition to its wholesale operation, BOK has also developed fee businesses, including trust, mortgage banking, and brokerage. Fees make up 46% of total revenue, the company said.

The near-term strategy is to continue to build those businesses and expand through acquisition. In addition to the three states it's already in, BOK would like to be in Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, and New Mexico. BOK has a loan production office in New Mexico, and it may open similar offices in other markets.

"The bad thing about being a leader in Oklahoma is, the upside growth potential is somewhat limited," Mr. Lybarger said, and that's why the company is looking beyond its state borders for growth.

But buying banks can be a challenge for BOK because of Mr. Kaiser's ownership stake. Shareholders of companies for sale may not want BOK stock, opting for shares that are more widely traded, said Mr. Lybarger. When Liberty rejected BOK's merger offer last year, many believed Mr. Kaiser's dominant ownership stake in BOK played a part in the decision.

The long-term goal is to have Mr. Kaiser dilute his stake. That could be accomplished in part by continuing to do acquisitions. Mr. Kaiser's position has already diminished somewhat since he bought nearly 100% of BOK six years ago.

"The interest in the stock will be greater in the next two years than it has been," predicted James A. White, BOK's chief financial officer. "The performance has caught up with the reality. The stock is performing" as well as, if not better than, those of banks BOK considers its peers, he said.

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