EL PASO - After struggling through several mergers that left its trust department decimated, State National Bank of El Paso had finally settled down last year to the task of rebuilding its trust business.
But last month Norwest Corp., Minneapolis, announced a definitive agreement to buy the bank, leaving officials in its trust and investment sales divisions in suspense.
Despite the uncertainty, officials at the $1.1 billion-asset bank - the largest in El Paso - say the merger can only strengthen their hand as the bank tries to compete for trust customers in this bustling border town.
"I think the marriage will be an easy one," said Dahl Marshall, vice president and executive trust officer for State National. "Our visions of what a bank should be are very similar."
But some of State National's past couplings have been anything but sweet. The bank lost all of its trust assets in 1991 when its holding company at the time, MCorp of Dallas, sold the $1 billion-asset trust division to Ameritrust Corp., which itself was bought by Society Corp. in 1992.
When Society announced it would merge with Keycorp in 1993, officials at the Cleveland-based banking company decided to sell State National's trust business once again, this time to a crosstown rival, the El Paso unit of Houston-based Texas Commerce Bank.
"We went from having a billion, to starting from scratch," Mr. Marshall said. "And our accounts were literally down the street."
Mr. Marshall is more hopeful of the bank's latest merger, having done some firsthand reconnaissance on one of Norwest's New Mexico branches. The recent unannounced "mystery-shopping" visit left him confident that Norwest would leave the bank's trust and investment staff intact while bolstering its product line, he said.
The union between $61.8 billion-asset Norwest and State National will give the smaller bank an arsenal of investment products to choose from, including the superregional banking company's Norwest Funds, which have been among the best-performing bank-run funds in the country.
State National officials also hope to gain a foothold in the expanding 401(k) retirement plan market, an area of business that the bank has not offered before but that Norwest has marketed extensively.
Also in line for a boost is State National's tiny retail investment effort, which just got off the ground in May. The Texas bank is working with Essex Corp. to sell investment products through its main branch in downtown El Paso, but officials say that arrangement will be rethought as approval for the merger draws nearer. Essex officials would not comment on the deal.
A Norwest spokeswoman said the banking company is hopeful the merger will be complete by the end of the year, but she would not comment on what impact the merger will have on State National's investment and trust services.
Some experts have observed that Norwest has been an aggressive purveyor of investment services in other states where it has expanded. Today, it has 150 offices in 16 states and employs more than 230 brokers.
"Norwest has the products, the sophistication, and the critical mass to give it credibility, and coupled with (State National's) local presence ... it should help them expand in the area," said David B. Master, a consultant with Optima Group, Fairfield, Conn.
State National's eight branch locations will give Norwest an important link to its banking operations in New Mexico and a significant presence in the largest border city in Texas.
The El Paso bank was founded in 1881 and helped finance the booming trade business between Texas and the Mexican states. The city lies adjacent to Juarez, Mexico, which has been the sight of rapid growth in recent years as the so-called maquiladoras - low-cost manufacturing plants - have sprung up.
"For all intents and purposes we are one city, with this nuisance of an international border between us," said Dan Wojcik, senior vice president and head of State National's investment services.
Mr. Marshall said he's looking at this latest merger "with a bit of a jaundiced eye, having gone through this seven times myself."
He added, "Everyone wants to be independent, but I don't know what that means any more. I think this merger will be a tremendous help to us."