VICTORVILLE, Calif. - In banking, it has long been assumed that big is almost always better.
Big banks make more loans. Big banks open more checking accounts.
And big banks sell more investment products, or so the common wisdom goes.
But one speck of a bank here in the Mojave desert has made a stab at changing that. Desert Community Bank, with four branches, claims to have in effect flung sand into the eyes of a Goliath.
By raiding one of Bank America Corp.'s best brokers, the $110 million-asset institution says it has had an investment sales renaissance.
"It's always good to take money away from the big city banks," said Ronald L. Wilson, Desert Community's president.
This midsize city and the surrounding areas are full of former Los Angelenos who settled down in the quiet, dusty community to escape the crime and grime of the big city.
These urban refugees make attractive bank customers. Many are professionals or retirees who have pools of money not only to save, but to invest.
All of which made Mr. Wilson fret. Maybe, he thought (after more customers began asking for investing help), Desert Community should break with tradition and sell investments.
Last year, Desert Community did just that, contracting for help from San Diego's Trust and Savings Bank, a $2 billion-asset institution. This bank trained two Desert Community bank employees to sell investments, and provided them with administrative support.
But the two employees were taught only how to sell San Diego Trust's proprietary Pacifica mutual fund family. Mr. Wilson quickly found this arrangement to be inadequate.
"[Customers] wanted to leave brokers like Dean Witter and come to us," Mr. Wilson said. "But if Pacifica [funds] were all they could choose from, then they weren't about to switch."
After First Interstate Bancorp in Los Angeles bought San Diego Trust in March, the situation got worse, he added.
Enter Michael Corrigan and his investment marketing company, Protective Financial Insurance Services, Santa Barbara, Calif.
This firm sells insurance and investments through 11 banks in the state. For some time, Mr. Corrigan had had his eyes on Desert Community as a client. When he heard that one of BankAmerica's best brokers, Roger L. Latham, was less than satisfied at the banking behemoth, he sensed an opportunity.
The 45-year-old Mr. Latham had been working the Victorville area for BankAmerica for five years. During that period he says he sold more than $100 million of investments.
Mr. Corrigan got Mr. Wilson and Mr. Latham talking. The three struck a deal in May where Mr. Latham went onto Mr. Corrigan's payrolls to lead a rejuvenated brokerage sales force at Desert Community.
"A lot of people knew Roger [Latham], and all of them said, If you hire that guy, we'll come do business with you," Mr. Wilson said. "And that's what I did."
Sitting in an office chock-full of photographs of Clint Eastwood and John Wayne, Mr. Latham ticked off a litany of complaints about his former employer.
BankAmerica, he said, wasn't assigning enough brokers to cover its branches.
It also wasn't giving its brokers enough clerical and administrative support.
In his case, Mr. Latham said he was being asked to serve too many branches - five in all - which left him too little time to cultivate customer relationships. He also wasn't given an administrative assistant, which he felt he needed.
"Imagine, B of A's No. 1 broker, and they wouldn't give me as much as one assistant. Not one. Nada. Zip," he said.
He said he got an award as the bank's best branch-based broker for 1992.
For its part, a BankAmerica official, who asked not to be named, said that although Mr. Latham was a "good broker," he wasn't the company's best.
He added that BankAmerica's brokerage sales force is adequately staffed to serve its customers.
And Mr. Latham isn't free of customer controversy.
The National Association of Securities Dealers is investigating one customer complaint about him.
Mr. Latham said the complaint involves a payment BankAmerica mishandled, and that he is blameless.
A BankAmerica spokesman declined to comment on the investigation, as did the NASD, but the agency did say it had no record of prior disciplinary actions or reprimands against Mr. Latham.
So far, Mr. Latham's move appears to be working out. Hooking up with Protective Financial let Desert Community sell a broader range of mutual funds, including those from Franklin Resources and Putnam Investments. The bank also has started selling annuities.
Mr. Latham recruited two former managers of local Bank-America branches to bring his investment sales force up to four people.
Desert Community has made hay out of the raids, touting them in local television ads and mailings.
"They [BankAmerica] weren't too happy about the ad," Mr. Latham said. "Once customers knew where I was, they started calling up."
The payoff for Desert Community has been modest, but significant for a smaller institution. Before the changeover, the bank was making monthly profits of $700 to $1,500 on investments sales.
Now, monthly profits total between $5,000 and $10,000, officials said. Deposits, meanwhile, are growing more, than 10% a year.
So far, annuities have been the hot seller, accounting for more than 60% of investment sales since May. Mutual funds and securities have made up a third and a tenth of sales, respectively.
And from the perpsective of at least one customer, Desert Community is making all the right moves.
"We think the world of this bank," said Phyllis Fox, on a recent cool and breezy day here.
"We trust the people here," she said. "We wouldn't go anywhere else with our money."
Ms. Fox has had checking and savings accounts with Desert Community for some time, and recently bought her first annuities there.