LEAWOOD, Kan. - Gold Banc Corp.'s humble past stares its founder in the face every day.
Through his corner office window in this booming Kansas City suburb, Michael W. Gullion faces an office and retail complex that once housed a 900-square-foot branch - Gold's second office after it was opened 20 years ago.
"We were a little community bank that basically just made loans and took deposits," said Mr. Gullion, chairman and chief executive officer.
Today that branch is long gone, and Gold is headquartered in a 25,000-square-foot building it built in 1996. The fast-growing company, which had less than $3 million of assets when it was formed in 1978, plans to close five bank purchases early next year that would more than double its assets, to $2.8 billion.
Meanwhile, it has diversified its financial offerings in the past two years by buying an investment and brokerage firm, a trust business, and a mortgage company to add to its insurance division.
"This bank was a peanut not too many years ago," said Anthony Polini, an analyst at the Advest Group in New York. "But no matter what size it was, [Mr. Gullion] always has thought big."
Historically, Gold's strategy has been to buy banks in rural, county seat communities and use their stable deposit bases to fuel loan growth in fast-growing suburban areas, such as Leawood.
But of its five pending deals, three are in metropolitan areas outside its home state. Moreover, these three companies - $530 million-asset CountryBanc of Edmond, Okla.; $483 million-asset American Bancshares of Bradenton, Fla.; and $340 million-asset Union Bankshares Ltd. of Denver - dwarf the others that Gold has bought in recent years.
"Would I have five deals pending? I don't know," said Erick Reim, an analyst at U.S. Bancorp Piper Jaffray in Minneapolis. "It seems like a lot of balls in the air."
Still, Mr. Reim said, if any company can handle simultaneous purchases, it is Gold. Since 1997, it has completed 13 deals, many of which overlapped.
Gold has also invested in technology that should reduce the cost of merging multiple systems and the time required to do it. This year the company acquired Compunet, a Lenexa, Kan., company that specializes in integrating systems for community banks and law firms.
"They have the back room to handle it," said Mr. Reim.
Gold's acquisition spree is prompted mainly by the planned ending of the pooling-of-interests accounting method. Pooling is widely considered more favorable to buyers than cash or stock purchases, and many bankers and analysts say they believe the volume of banking mergers will shrink soon if regulators, as expected, ban the pooling method on Jan. 1, 2001.
Because Gold expects its acquisition pace also will slow then, it wants to move now into fast-growing markets where, once established, it can use internal growth to outpace the industry.
"We don't want the market to view us as a company that's been just an acquisition story," Mr. Gullion said. "We don't want them to think we're going to run out of gas. We want to be viewed as a banking company that's capable of good, solid, internal growth."
Mr. Gullion has set specific internal growth goals. Within the next couple of years, he said, he wants Gold to average $5 million of assets per employee and five accounts per customer. As of Sept. 30, Gold had about $3.4 million of assets per employee, and the average customer had 2.5 accounts with it.
How big does Gold want to be?
Keith E. Bouchey, Gold's executive vice president of mergers and acquisitions, hesitates to say. An original target was $3 billion of assets before 2001, but Mr. Bouchey admitted that, in the current merger climate, that goal is proving "too easy to reach.
"The target keeps moving up," he said. "I've had to tell some banks that I have so much on my plate right now that we might be interested in buying them but I have to finish some of these other deals first."
Analysts are less shy about predicting. Advest's Mr. Polini said he believes Gold easily could surpass $4 billion before 2001.
In any case, Gold executives say they won't buy banks just for the sake of getting bigger. From August to October when Gold announced its five deals, Mr. Bouchey said the company left another three on the table.
"We're not looking for banks to fix," Mr. Gullion said. "We're looking for banks that continue to grow, and the real key there is leadership. It would be a drain on the resources of Gold Banc to buy an inexpensive bank that has problems and fix it."
Still, even high-quality banking companies can prove difficult to manage when they're spread out over several states. Edward E. Furash, chairman of the Monument Financial Group consulting firm in Alexandria, Va., says in some cases active acquirers have themselves been bought after following such a strategy.
For instance, Mr. Furash said, West One Bancorp of Boise, Idaho, bought branches that were too geographically dispersed throughout the Pacific Northwest to afford the sought-after synergies. He suggested these moves led to West One's selling itself to U.S. Bancorp in 1995.
"Anytime you can make an in-market merger, it's a better decision than going to a new market," Mr. Furash said. "You should push your in-market acquisitions to the limits of raising antitrust flags. You want to be the biggest guy on the block in your neighborhood."
The jury is still out on whether Gold's strategy will fly with investors. Its shares were trading Monday at $10.125 - down 40.4% from the $17 per share high nearly a year earlier.
Analysts attributed the decline more to lackluster demand for bank stocks than to fear that Gold is biting off more than it can chew.
But if the stock price stays down too long, it could jeopardize the pending deals. American, the Florida company, has the right to walk away if Gold's stock falls below $10 a share; Denver's Union, below $11; and Oklahoma's CountryBanc, below $9.50.
"I still think the deals will go through," said Wayne R. Bopp, an analyst at Robert W. Baird & Co. in Milwaukee. "If it got to that point, they could try a couple different strategies. They either could delay the closing in anticipation that the stock price would recover, or they could renegotiate the deal slightly to sweeten the terms."
Mr. Gullion said the company wants into Florida because many of its customers have retired there. Gold executives also said they believe Compunet, their high-technology backbone, gives them an ace in the hole to make the Florida deal and others work.
Gold spent $4.3 million this year to buy the technology company, which Gold has used to handle the conversion of eight banks' systems to a standard platform in less than a year. Having an integration system in-house not only saves Gold time and money but also frees its executives to focus on business, product, and cultural issues rather than networks and data lines.
"It's the absolute perfect marriage of two industries," said Malcolm M. Aslin, who co-founded Compunet in 1995 and now is Gold's president. "If we need those engineers, we can move them quickly onto Gold projects as soon as they're available. Otherwise, you might wait for an outsourced firm to fit you into their queue at their earliest convenience."
Gold is betting its technology arm is ready to bring at least five banks into the fold soon. As for whether the company will seek more deals after it closes these, Mr. Bouchey, the merger chief, says, "Let's just say I'll be busy for some time to come."