Already the dominant small-business lender in New England, Fleet Financial Corp. says it's seeking the same distinction in the ultra- competitive New York metropolitan market.
Fleet officials say they're not happy with having only 8% to 10% of the market in New York City and northern New Jersey. The bank got that piece of the action after its acquisition of Natwest Bancorp last May.
"We think that makes us the third-ranked small-business player in that market," said James W. Schepker, a Fleet spokesman. "It will be our ambition there to be the No. 1 or No. 2 player ultimately."
Currently, Fleet trails Chase Manhattan Corp. and Citicorp.
But Mr. Schepker said $81 billion-asset Fleet's strategy for boosting small-business lending doesn't include an expansion of its existing 52 branches in the New York City area or 55-person lending staff.
He disputed a recent report in Crain's New York Business that said the bank had plans to acquire branches in the New York area as part of its small-business expansion.
He said Fleet is using the products and branches it already has to grab a bigger chunk of the local market. The company is betting on what Mr. Schepker calls a "cross-border" strategy. Basically, Fleet is touting a branch network that allows customers to bank at any Fleet outlet in their region from Maine to New Jersey.
While some industry analysts doubt Fleet can topple Chase, which claims 60% of the small-business lending market in metro New York, they don't think the No. 2 spot is out of reach.
"It is a competitive market in which all the banks are focusing on" small banking, said Charles Wendel, president of Financial Institutions Consulting, in New York. "It's a market where Chase Bank is largely king."
But Frank J. Barkocy, senior vice president of the Advest Group in New York, said he thinks Fleet will be a formidable competitor in small- business lending.
He doesn't think the firm's branch size will hinder its success.
"They have enough strategic locations," Mr. Barkocy said. "I don't see that as an impediment."
Robert Ziska, managing vice president of First Manhattan Consulting Group, said he expects Fleet can effectively compete against its larger rivals on the lending side of small-business banking.
But he said Fleet probably can't eclipse its rivals when it comes to amassing small-business deposits.
Mr. Ziska said a larger branch network would be necessary to attract more deposits. Chase has 254 branches in New York City alone and another 40 in New Jersey.
Ken Herz, a Chase spokesman, naturally agreed.
"Branches are very important for small-business," Mr. Herz said. "You need the branches for payroll, you need the branches for currency."