John Catsimatidis, known in New York as the owner of several prominent grocery chains, wants to add a bank to his rapidly growing business empire.

Mr. Catsimatidis, 43, has a reputation as an aggressive and shrewd dealmaker. He has signed a letter of intent to acquire control of First New York Bank for Business for $9.8 million.

The bank, which has $600 million in assets, initially rose to prominence as First Women's Bank, owned and managed by women. It broadened into a business-oriented bank in the 1980s and became overexposed to problem commercial real estate loans.

Middle-Market Ambitions

Mr. Catsimatidis, himself a real estate expert and investor, wants to work those problems out and let the bank concentrate on the strategy of serving middle-market businesses.

Acting through a holding company, Designcraft Industries Inc., Mr. Catsimatidis on May 11 announced the agreement to acquire the bank. Designcraft, formerly a jewelry parts manufacturer, has divested its industrial enterprises so that it can become a bank holding company.

The company is currently examining the books of First New York Bank for Business and expects to complete a definitive agreement by late summer.

Designcraft plans to commit about $5 million to finance the acquisition, with the rest to be raised from private investors.

First New York Bank for Business has about $21 million in capital. Mr. Catsimatidis wants to get that up to $40 million - the amount it had in 1988 before the real estate problems hit.

Mr. Catsimatidis sees the deal as just the latest in a series of business ventures that have included real estate, jet leasing, oil refining, and the supermarkets: Red Apple, Gristede's, Sloan's, and Pantry Pride.

"I'm only interested in making a profit," Mr. Catsimatidis said. "I'm used to running companies, and the bank is just another company."

Banking's 'Broader Market' Is Attraction

His track record is impressive. For 1991, Forbes magazine ranked his holdings 65th among the 400 largest private companies in the United States.

Mr. Catsimatidis said he is attracted to banking because it can open doors and create opportunities in many businesses. He called banking "a much broader market" than others he has been involved in, such as Designcraft's jewelry business.

He said he bought Designcraft with the intention of selling its activities and using it as a shell for investment. "I have no interest in manufacturing," he added.

He thinks he timed the approach to First New York Bank for Business to coincide with the trough of banking's current business cycle.

"The bank relied on real estate too heavily, and had too many clients who defaulted on their loans," Mr. Catsimatidis said.

The bank "will not lend on pipe dreams of anticipation to pay interest," he said. "We will only do business with good, solid companies" mainly in the range of $1 million to $5 million in assets. Under a renamed parent, First New York Bank Holding, the bank will not lend for construction, land, cooperative, or condominium conversions. Mr. Catsimatidis is interested in shopping-center loans, however.

Smooth Regulatory Sailing Expected

Mr. Catsimatidis was born in Greece and came to the United States as an infant. He earned a degree in engineering from New York University.

Mr. Catsimatidis' aggressive dealmaking has landed him in court on at least one occasion. In that case, one of his companies accused of wiretapping executives' telephones paid a $1 million penalty. Mr. Catsimatidis denied accusations that he directed the operation.

He said he knows of no legal or regulatory obstacles that could prevent his proposed bank acquisition. He was a director of First New York Bank for Business from 1989 through 1991 and would become chairman and chief executive officer upon completion of the deal.

The bank's current chairman, Martin Simon, is a director of Designcraft Industries and would remain bank president under Mr. Catsimatidis.

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