ConnectOne Bancorp (CNOB) in Englewood Cliffs, N.J., must like challenges.

The $3 billion-asset company, already among a handful of banks to recently hammer out so-called merger of equals, is planning an accelerated integration of its $243 million combination with Center Bancorp in Union, N.J.

Clients who entered Center's branches Tuesday were greeted by ConnectOne signage — as well as coffee mugs — a day after the deal's completion. Raising the bar, Frank Sorrentino 3rd, ConnectOne's chairman, president and chief executive, aims to integrate Center's systems on July 21.

Sorrentino says he is confident ConnectOne has taken the appropriate steps to keep customers and employees, and to minimize hiccups, after the integration. He will be doing so without Anthony Weagley, Center's chief executive, who resigned in conjunction with the deal's completion. (Weagley was supposed to stay at ConnectOne as chief operating officer.)

Sorrentino, in an interview Monday, discussed his reasons for an expedited integration and what ConnectOne is doing to ensure a smooth transition. Here is an edited transcript.

What are you doing to retain customers and employees?
There are two things that are critical. First, the vast majority of the client-facing people are staying. You can call the bank tomorrow or the next day, and you're likely going to be dealing with the same person you had in the past. And the employees are further empowered and have a whole new suite of tools to meet customers' needs.

To the extent that we do that right, and we're on track to do that now, we don't expect much change. There is normal attrition, but we really don't expect there to be too much of a disruption.

How do you empower employees?
We like to answer any request from a client with the word yes and then figure out what the question needs to be. That might be a bit different than how most banks think. While the legacy bank is client-focused, we are laser focused on how to develop our client relationships. Having people who don't have to check with a supervisor to make a decision will go a long way.

What will the integration schedule look like?
We expect to complete the systems integration on July 21, which is very aggressive. Most banks wait six months to a year to integrate. We thought doing so would be critical because we were so focused on having one common culture.

We believe our accelerated integration process is on track. Could there be issues? Of course. But understand that there are issues with any integration regardless of how long you take to do it. And we're prepared for anything that comes along.

What's the upside of a speedy integration?
That's easy. Our staff can now focus on the customer relationship and customer problems. As the staff becomes more knowledgeable of the products, there is a greater opportunity to cross-sell. It is an opportunity to put the integration behind us and focus on our organic growth.

To me, it was critical to get this done in as timely a way as possible. I believe we are an organically built organization, even considering that we just completed one of the biggest MOEs in our state.
We also want to take advantage of the dislocations in the marketplace, and you can't do that when you're running two systems. We don't want that distraction.

What are you doing to limit risk?
All of the employees are going through extensive training, so they'll be well versed in our product base and the ConnectOne systems. It is all about upfront planning and upfront training.

There is a ConnectOne employee at every Center branch to answer or funnel questions to the right person. And we're going to have a crisis team that has knowledge of every system. We have also enhanced our call center to be available 24 hours a day.

The real work is the integration. We're being proactive with the bigger and more-complex client relationships, reaching out to talk to the bookkeepers, CFOs and controllers [of those companies]. We're also arranging events to get people together.

What's next for ConnectOne? What about acquisitions?
I've been very consistent stating that we are an organically oriented company. We hire people who want to work for a great enterprise. This deal is just another chapter in our history.

But there's a movement nationwide in the M&A space, and one of the reasons we did our [initial public offering] was to have a seat at the table. We have to be open to all opportunities. While we're organically oriented, there may be opportunities in the marketplace and we're well positioned to take advantage of them, but we're not going to be chasing deals

I think the market has spoken, and it thinks we deserve a great currency, and when the opportunity arises we should put it to use. It may be in the form of M&A or just attracting really good people to the organization.

What does the M&A environment look like?
There are haves and have-nots. Some like us are doing just fine, putting business on and attracting good people. Then there are some that, for a number of reasons, are just treading water. A lot of them today are looking to partner up with someone or throw in the towel.

A number of stronger banks are able to go after some of those deals. While the total number of deals remains down, there are no new de novos and we're losing banks so the number is up [as a percentage of total banks]. I think we'll see a greater number of banks in the $1 billion to $5 billion in assets range and even more in the $5 billion to $20 billion range.

What businesses are you focusing on the most?
We continue to diversify our loan portfolio and technology platform. The Center deal gives us additional capital to do that. We're predominantly a commercial real estate lender, and I've always said we'd like to do more commercial and industrial [loans]. Having a bigger legal lending limit gets us in front of the right types of deals and brings the right C&I lenders to the organization. Scale matters in a lot of nonfinancial ways.