For Tom Johannesen, the toughest aspect of running a new bank has little to do with banking.

The chief executive of First Community Bank ran into one snag after another in trying to find a conventional headquarters following the 1993 founding of the Elgin, Ill., institution. So the bank has been based in a strip mall for its first three years. It is scheduled to move to permanent digs next month.

In a "real" bank location, "I'm convinced we would have been bigger," by now, said Mr. Johannesen. "But we were able to meet our projections in spite of that."

First Community hit $37 million in assets this month, $3 million over its three-year goal. Yearend return on assets were 0.80%. and Mr. Johannesen expects to hit 1% next year.

First Community's performance is much like those of the 27 other banks founded in the Chicago area from 1991 through 1995. What makes them different from banks founded in the 1980s, however, is that they are following the traditional growth path - slow progress leading to solid profitability after about three years.

In the 1980s, most new community banks - especially in go-go California and New England - grew and attained significant profitability much faster, sometimes within the first year. (Many subsequently failed, however.) Chicago, one of the hottest start-up markets in the country in this decade, could represent a return to normalcy, simply because the new banks' performance is so normal.

Start-ups usually hope to reach the break-even point after 18 months and achieve a return on assets 0.80% by the end of their third full year, said Richard A. Soukup, a consultant in the Chicago office of Grant Thornton.

The eight new banks chartered in the market in 1991 had an average ROA of 1.08% at the end of 1995, according to data from Sheshunoff Information Services.

The average 1995 ROA for the four 1992 start-ups was 0.66%, and the four begun the following year averaged 0.30%. The two banks launched in 1994 averaged a minus-1.05% by the end of the following year. The 10 new banks chartered last year had negative returns -ranging from minus-74.97% to minus-2.89%.

One of the highest yearend 1995 returns among recent start-ups in the market was the 3.03% posted by Chicago's Cosmopolitan Bank and Trust. In 1991, FBOP Corp. of Oak Park, the $125 million-asset bank's holding company, acquired a national bank that regulators had seized and established a new state charter.

"Management of the holding company has run very efficient operations and has benefited from high net interest margins," said chief executive Dan Watts.

Biltmore Investors Bank, in the northern suburb of Lake Forest, had the lowest yearend-1995 ROA among the start-up Class of 1991 - minus-0.54%.

Owned by $1.1 billion-asset Johnson International, Racine, Wis., the $102 million-asset bank focuses on providing private banking to business owners and their companies.

Chief executive Lawrence Loeser said the company's bottom line is affected by a management fee Biltmore pays to its holding company.

"When that's factored in, our performance would be very directly comparable or better" than the other start-ups, he said, although he would not disclose specifics.

Robert Klamp, chief executive of International Bank of Chicago, predicted the October 1992 start-up's ROA would climb to 1% this year from 0.44% at yearend.

He said the $40 million-asset bank, which serves Uptown, a neighborhood on Chicago's north side that includes a large Asian population, is on track with its three-to-five year plans for profitability.

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