John M. Eggemeyer 3d has a nose for money and a weakness for football.

The 50-year-old former Northwestern University football player and college football coach still likes to put on the pads at annual student- alumni scrimmages, once dismissing a case of bronchitis to get in the trenches against players 25 years younger. His zeal earned him a cracked rib.

Most of Mr. Eggemeyer's time these days, however, is spent presiding over one of California's most dynamic banking companies, Castle Creek Capital.

For example, Western Bancorp, Laguna Niguel, Calif., of which Mr. Eggemeyer is the largest shareholder, just completed its $106.7 million acquisition of SC Bancorp of Anaheim.

This and other deals have helped his holdings expand to $1.4 billion of assets from only $70 million a year earlier. After finishing a $198 million acquisition of Santa Monica Bank, announced July 31, Western would reach $2.2 billion of assets.

At a time when few banks have sufficient market share in California to interest outsiders who want entree to the state, the startling growth of Mr. Eggemeyer's business is starting to turn some heads.

"California is the place right now so far as bank consolidation is concerned," said J. Richard Fredericks, senior managing director at NationsBanc Montgomery Securities, San Francisco, "and he is the action."

It amounts to a stunning reversal of fortune for Mr. Eggemeyer, whose two-decade career in banking seemed at an end seven years ago. Now he is a remarkable example of a banker turned successful entrepreneur.

His career began in 1968 at First Chicago Corp., a job the Indiana native opted for instead of joining the University of Michigan football coaching staff under his mentor, Bo Schembechler. Mr. Eggemeyer had been an assistant coach at Miami University of Ohio.

After reaching the treasurer's office at First Chicago, he went to Minneapolis in 1977 to work for Norwest Corp., where he was treasurer, comptroller, chief financial officer, and head of mergers and acquisitions.

He then went to Chemical Banking Corp., where he lasted 15 months, because he says his family didn't like New York. Others say Mr. Eggemeyer has always been better at giving orders than taking them.

"He's a guy who's better at having people work for him than he is for them," observed William A. Cooper, chairman and chief executive of TCF Financial Corp., a Minneapolis banking company. Mr. Eggemeyer helped nurse TCF back to health as an investment banker after derivatives-related losses in the late 1980s nearly killed it. He now serves on the bank's board.

In 1983, he got control of his first bank, becoming president of First National Bank of Denver. Colorado's premiere bank at the time, it was suffering greatly from losses in commercial and residential real estate and mining.

Regulators wanted to slap the bank with a cease-and-desist order, but Mr. Eggemeyer persuaded them to wait a weekend until he could devise a recovery plan.

The plan, "announced on Pearl Harbor day," he recalled during a recent visit to New York, was explosive for its time. He essentially wiped the bank's balance sheet clean. But that meant firing half its employees, increasing loan-loss reserves, writing off real estate loans, and taking a big restructuring charge.

After all that pain, he sold the bank to First Interstate of Los Angeles.

Although selling a local bank to outside interests is common today, it was a bombshell back then.

"People have said I'm pretty thin-skinned," he said. "Getting crucified in the local press hurt my feelings. The image was, I was some gunslinger from New York who sold for a lot of money.

"I guess it was a lot of money," he said upon reflection.

First Interstate fired him a month after the deal closed.

He returned to Minneapolis to work for First Bank System Inc.'s trust division. He was fired again in 1987.

"After the turmoil in Denver and Minneapolis, I said, 'The hell with this,' " he recalled. He went to work in corporate finance for Drexel Burnham Lambert's Chicago office, heading its financial institutions group.

In 1990, Drexel Burnham collapsed amidst a deluge of government investigations and Mr. Eggemeyer hit rock bottom.

Divorced, with two children in college, and facing few career prospects in a weak economy, "I had a lot of self-doubts. I didn't feel successful at all coming out of the Drexel experience and felt I didn't have what it took," he said.

But he did have contacts among wealthy people thanks to his years in banking and investment banking. He used them to raise the money to start investing in the banking business.

His experience with TCF, First National Bank of Denver, and other troubled banks taught him to recognize undervalued institutions. One of his first investments was in United Postal Bancorp, a St. Louis mutual thrift company that was converting to stock ownership.

Though the thrift was saddled with huge amounts of goodwill, Mr. Eggemeyer bought into it, and so did Keefe Managers, a hedge fund that has invested in many of Mr. Eggemeyer's banks. The stock went public at $10 and rose 270% in 11 months before the company was sold to Mercantile Bancorp. in 1994.

"Eggemeyer's opportunistic, and I mean that in the best sense," said Matt Byrnes, president of Keefe Managers. "He's got an ex-executive's nose for value."

By last year Mr. Eggemeyer had raised the money to form an investment fund and bank holding company called Castle Creek Capital, and he started to make acquisitions in California.

Again, his background as a banker who specializes in spotting undervalued properties came into play. He bought Monarch Bancorp, changed its name last June to Western Bancorp, and did an unusual 1-for-8.5 stock split.

Mostly he has bought small, poorly capitalized banks unable to grow much since California began to recover from a deep recession.

He's attracted customers to his banks by offering the kind of personal services the Wells Fargos and BankAmericas have largely shunned.

"It was very clear there was a strong backlash to the transformation caused by the large banks' becoming more transaction-oriented and less interested in 'relationship banking,' " he said. "I think the big banks will over the long run be quite successful at their strategy, but it was clear to me there was no one of necessary size doing relationship banking."

But in a recent interview, he indicated that his days of aggressive empire-building could be ending. "We will make acquisitions that make sense," he said, "but we don't need them to achieve the growth we want."

It remains to be seen how that will sit with some of the famously impatient shareholders he's picked up in the course of his acquisitions, including Michael Price, Basswood Partners, and Harry Keefe.

But Mr. Eggemeyer, who has seen nearly everything in his years as a banker, investment banker, and investor knows full well the rules of the road he's embarked upon.

"Knowing that you have to wake up every morning and prove performance to your shareholders is a good reason to keep performing," he said.

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