BankAtlantic Bancorp and BankUnited Financial Corp.-the two biggest remaining independent depository institutions in Florida-look a lot alike.

Both thrifts, which serve the affluent South Florida market, are run by relatively young chief executive officers who exercise voting control.

And BankAtlantic and BankUnited are both seeking to capitalize on the disappearance of Barnett Banks Inc., which was acquired by NationsBank Corp. in January.

But there the similarities end.

Whereas BankAtlantic in Fort Lauderdale is attempting to transform itself into a commercial bank resembling the former Barnett, BankUnited is staying true to the thrift charter and residential lending that have been its bread-and-butter since its inception 14 years ago.

"They're going in different directions," said Martin Friedman of Friedman, Billings, Ramsey & Co. "It's like night and day."

The contrasts-described in this article and in a second to follow- illuminate the challenges and choices banking companies nationwide are facing as rampant consolidation roils their markets. In many regions, mergers of larger banks turn those like BankAtlantic and BankUnited, with less than $5 billion of assets, into their states' largest homegrown institutions.

Which is on the right course - BankAtlantic, BankUnited, or both? "Time will tell," Mr. Friedman said.

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Alan B. Levan, chairman and chief executive officer of BankAtlantic, can scarcely contain his enthusiasm.

Surveying the Florida banking landscape, he sees few if any limits on his $3.8 billion-asset company's growth potential. The sale of Barnett left not only an abundance of banking expertise for hire and a wealth of business to be had, but also an opportunity to stake a long-term claim for Floridians' hearts and wallets.

"We want to be the major Florida bank," Mr. Levan, 53, said in an interview at the company's headquarters.

"Being Florida-based gives us bragging rights," he added. "We can make a heck of a living here."

With that in mind, Mr. Levan is paying up to attract talent and launch new business units.

He is also running aggressive advertising and marketing campaigns and investing in new technology.

Assets have grown 37% over the last year, but performance has lagged. Net income for the first six months of 1998 was down 12%, to $11.6 million.

"We made a strategic decision to take the earnings down" in favor of longer-term infrastructure needs, he said.

Frank J. Barkocy, an analyst with Josephthal & Co., said the earnings slide is not alarming. "The company is more focused on building its critical mass," he said.

Indeed, over the last 18 months, Mr. Levan has virtually reinvented BankAtlantic. In many ways, in Barnett's image. Analyst Martin Friedman of Friedman Billings calls it "a Barnett junior."

Areas getting new leadership and increased emphasis include small- business and consumer lending, marketing, sales management, and trade finance. All are headed by former Barnett people.

BankAtlantic chief operating officer Steven D. Hickman also came from Barnett.

He came to set up a small-business unit in August 1997 after doing the same at Jacksonville-based Barnett.

Mr. Hickman has a team of 40 focusing on companies with revenues under $5 million. Two more former Barnett small-business bankers were hired in August.

On Sept. 1, BankAtlantic debuted a "daybreak" daily financial statement that small enterprises could get on demand.

It is similar to the "sunrise" fax service that was popular at Barnett and adopted by NationsBank.

In the first half of this year, BankAtlantic's small-business unit closed more than 1,300 loans, totaling $75 million.

International banking, loan syndications, capital markets, and cash management are all also under development at BankAtlantic.

Mr. Levan said he has expectations for them, though they have yet to produce significant revenue.

He said nearly all of the new business lines that currently are losing money should be profitable by yearend.

The company has more than doubled its automated teller machine network in the last several months and plans to have more than 700 throughout Florida by the end of the first quarter of 1999.

It also is adding branches, including at least five in the Tampa Bay area-where NationsBank and Barnett closed many offices-by yearend.

In March, BankAtlantic retained Alex Sheshunoff & Co. for advice on improving profitability and efficiency. Heeding the consulting firm, BankAtlantic is consolidating its retail product lines, introducing an asset management account that combines investment options with traditional demand deposit accounts, and streamlining its 66-branch system.

All of the changes are expected to result in $8 million in annual incremental income by 1999, Mr. Levan said.

BankAtlantic is also concentrating on getting fee income to 35% of revenues, up from 25% today. To that end the company recently acquired Ryan, Beck & Co., the Livingston, N.J., investment banking firm, which it plans to keep at arm's length.

The growth aspirations have led Mr. Levan to revamp his top management team as well.

The agenda calls for a new chief credit officer and a new chief financial officer to succeed Jasper R. Eanes, who currently handles both responsibilities.

BankAtlantic needs "a different skill set," Mr. Levan said. The company is searching for executives with experience in organizations nearly three times BankAtlantic's size, he said.

Reflecting Mr. Levan's oft-stated intention to keep his company independent, a recent ad campaign contains "Not For Sale" messages. With his personal control over the voting stock and ambitious management plans, Mr. Levan is convincing many observers that he is in it for the long haul.

"He clearly is thinking big," said R. Harold Schroeder, an analyst with Keefe, Bruyette & Woods, who rates the stock "attractive."

"Those who are looking at BankAtlantic as a takeover have cleared away from the stock because this guy has said he is out building a franchise.

He has a clear vision and is executing that vision."

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