When you step off the train in Greenwich, Conn., a community wanting for money isn't the first thing that comes to mind.
Opposite the station, a trim building houses Lexus, Bentley, and Rolls-Royce dealerships. At the nearby Indian Harbor Yacht Club, flags snap in the winds off Long Island Sound.
But Robert J. Oca and Richard M. Sontag looked at Greenwich and saw a need for more bank loans. Specifically, they say, small businesses in the area are clamoring for credit.
So Mr. Oca and Mr. Sontag are starting a bank. If all goes according to plan, the Greenwich Commonwealth Bank should open its doors by the first of the year. To help capitalize the bank, the two men are arranging an $8.5 million private placement of stock.
As bank founders, Mr. Oca and Mr. Sontag are part of a seemingly dying breed. Last year, only 71 banks were formed nationwide, the lowest level in nearly four decades. Experts say entrepreneurs have been discouraged by stringent regulations and a weak economy.
Mr. Oca, 44, and Mr. Sontag, 66, show no signs of losing their resolve.
The two men - both former chief executives of banks - have been planning their venture for the past year and a half from a small, makeshift office in the home of Mr. Oca's parents.
A Big Market Seen
"The main disagreement we've had is who gets to sit at the desk," Mr. Sontag says.
The two say that small-business lending has dwindled in the area because many banks have become preoccupied with working out bad loans.
In fact, their research shows that 62% of small businesses in their target market - Greenwich and nearby Stamford and Darien - would likely switch banks if they found one that was more responsive.
According to Mr. Sontag, who will be chief executive of the bank, there are about 10,000 small and medium-sized businesses in the area - businesses with annual sales of less than $10 million.
Some of the most credit-worthy among them were seeing their loans called and lines of credit canceled, he said.
Old Hands at Banking
Mr. Oca, Mr. Sontag, and the members of their board of directors boast plenty of experience in starting and running banks.
Mr. Sontag was a founder and chief executive of Liberty National Bank in Stamford. In 1978, Liberty was acquired by Hartford-based Connecticut Bank and Trust, now part of Fleet Financial Group Inc., where Mr. Oca was vice president of commercial lending.
Mr. Oca later served as chief executive officer at Connecticut Community Bank of Greenwich, now part of Gateway Bank.
Mr. Sontag left Connecticut Bank and Trust in 1985 and, until teaming up with Mr. Oca, ran an investment firm.
On the strength of the business plan. Mr. Oca and Mr. Sontag won a temporary charter from the state Department of Banking in December. The charter gives the founders 18 months to raise capital, obtain Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. insurance, and set up the business.
The department's New Bank Hearing Panel - made up of the state treasurer, comptroller, and banking commissioner - approved the application by a vote of 2 to 1.
Connecticut Banking Commissioner Ralph M. Shulansky, the dissenter, noted that at the time of the vote Greenwich had seven banks.
Mr. Oca said the mere existence of banks proves little. "Just because they're here doesn't mean they're making small-business loans," he said, adding that Greenwich now has 11 banks.
Mr. Shulansky agreed that small businesses are having a tough time. but he argued that businesses in Greenwich have not suffered more than those in other connecticut towns.
He also said many banks are not making loans because lending is less Profitable than investing in government bonds, not because of capital problems.
Room for Newcomers
Others. however, say there is room for new banks in the market.
Stephen M. Hotchkiss, who formerly was country manager of Ecuador for Bank of America, is organizing a bank in Stamford. Like Greenwich Commonwealth, the Patriot National Bank would largely serve the small-business market.
There's room for new community banks "without the other institutions even knowing we're here," Mr. Hotchkiss said. "For a bank to break even in Stamford, one of the wealthiest cities in the country, you have to penetrate just 2-1/2% to 3% of the market, and that's what our bank will do. And then some."
Change of Plan
When Mr. Oca and Mr. Sontag first started probing the market, their idea was to buy a troubled bank and restore it to health. But after months of hunting, they decided that such a purchase would simply put them in the same awkward position as their rivals.
"We didn't want to be endlessly involved with restructuring assets," Mr. Oca said. "Small-business lending will be my No. 1 priority."