The April 2 acquisition of Old Kent Financial Corp. has given the investment management unit of Cincinnati’s Fifth Third Bancorp the expertise and geographical reach to become a much larger player.

Michael K. Keating, the executive vice president of Fifth Third Bank Investment Advisors, now has $30 billion of assets under management. He said he will focus on adding offerings for affluent investors, doing more institutional custody and retirement plan servicing, and distributing the products of its various asset management groups in all of its markets.

Christopher W. Marinac, a bank equities analyst at Robinson-Humphrey in Atlanta, said another recent purchase, of the money manager Maxus Investment Group, enabled Fifth Third to serve clients at different levels of wealth. Maxus added services for the affluent, and Fifth Third’s mutual funds are strong performers and have long been popular with average retail customers, he said.

Old Kent has a solid record in managing and selling investments, Mr. Marinac said, but its most important contribution to Fifth Third’s effort in asset management may be in the Chicago market.

Thanks to the purchase, Fifth Third now “has a footprint and a good sales culture” in Chicago, and “in a lot of cases that’s all it needs to grow,” he said. It will probably look for more acquisitions in the area eventually, but this gives the company the start it needs, according to Mr. Marinac.

“Fifth Third is more nimble, focused, and aggressive, and that makes up for a perceived lack of size,” he said. Those qualities create incremental business, “and that’s going to drive growth,” he added.

The company has always taken a slow but steady approach to growth, in investment management as well as overall, and executives see little need to change that tack. Fifth Third has said since 1997 that it wants to expand in investment management, but progress has been deliberate and largely organic.

Over the past four years it has made only three investment acquisitions — all small. In November 1997 it bought Heartland Capital Management, an Indianapolis money manager for institutions and high-net-worth individuals, with $900 million of assets under management. In June 1998 it purchased Ohio Co., a regional brokerage firm in Columbus with $2 billion of assets. And this January it closed the deal for $1.4 billion-asset Maxus in Cleveland.

Old Kent added about $10 billion of assets under management, including $6 billion in mutual funds; more investment expertise in areas such as fixed income; and a foothold in Chicago and Detroit. Fifth Third’s presence now stretches over Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Illinois, and Florida. (It is in the process of selling its branches in Arizona to Marshall & Ilsley Corp. of Milwaukee.)

Mr. Keating said Fifth Third would consider buying more money management firms to add to investment competencies or to gain a foothold in a particular market, but no acquisitions are imminent.

“I think whatever we do will be measured,” he said. “We will acquire a money manager if we’re looking for a specific discipline or to add to scale in a particular region.” For instance, he said, Heartland gave Fifth Third greater scale and market share in Indianapolis. Alternately, the company could hire “three to five top people from a major competitor.”

What Fifth Third is doing is hiring salespeople — about 65 so far this year, with expectations of an additional 50 by the end of the year, he said.

The company is counting on its investment performance and aggressive sales culture to pull in new business from both existing bank customers — commercial and retail — and from competitors in different markets, Mr. Keating said.

New investment products should also attract more money from existing customers, said Fifth Third’s chief market strategist, Joseph Keating (no relation to Michael), who was president and chief investment strategist for Old Kent’s asset management arm.

For instance, he said, before the merger Old Kent only offered separately managed accounts on a limited basis because it lacked the investment expertise to assemble a balanced portfolio for someone with a few million dollars.

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