President, chief executive Old Kent Bank, Grand Rapids, Mich.

If there are any secrets to making money in banking, few people are better placed to know them than David Wagner, head of Old Kent Bank and Trust Co.

But he says there is nothing mysterious about Old Kent, which has one of the most consistent records of profitability among U.S. regionals.

"Historically, our margins have not been the reason for our success," says Mr. Wagner, 38, who is also executive vice president of the bank's parent, Old Kent Financial Corp. "We made money by running our operations more efficiently and by avoiding loan losses."

The numbers speak for themselves: Return on equity over the past five years has averaged 15.03%, and return on assets 1.09%. In the first nine months of 1992, Old Kent earned $82 million, for a 16.17% ROE and 1.25% ROA.

Mr. Wagner has played a key role in the reorganizations and streamlining that made those numbers possible. And he has a future at least as big as the company's superregional ambitions.

Born and raised in Cincinnati, Mr. Wagner joined Old Kent in 1977 after getting an MBA from Indiana University.

Then concentrated in western Michigan, the holding company has since grown to more than $9 billion in assets, having swallowed up 44 banks and savings institutions in Michigan and the Chicago area.

These, in turn, have been merged into 16 units -- a number big enough so that local managers stay in touch with their markets, but not so big as to be unwieldy. In keeping with the management style known as "super community" banking, Old Kent centrally coordinates some administrative functions that do not detract from customer service.

"Acquiring banks is a much faster way to gain market share than setting up de novo," Mr. Wagner observes. "And you drive up returns by leveraging the back office and extending its functions over more assets.

"Our strategy has been to Make acquisitions on a regular basis in a nondilutive fashion," Mr. Wagner says. "We're well positioned to make more" in Michigan and neighboring states.

By the turn of the century, he predicts, the United States "will have successful community and regional banks and a few of those huge national organizations." But he warns that not all will succeed, and the going could be especially rough for those that aim to be nationwide, full-service players.

The trend in industry, generally, is to break large organizations up into smaller, more responsive pieces," he notes. "Yet the banking industry seems to be heading in the other direction."

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