The conference title - Acquire or be Acquired - said it all.

Raiders roamed the hallways. Speakers were often brutally blunt. And independence-minded bankers looking for a supportive shoulder in the dark of the conference room were more likely to find an activist shareholder peppering them with questions about their institutions' returns.

Those attending the annual conference sponsored by Bank Director magazine and the Strategic Research Institute were barraged with the message that times have changed and that consolidation has become an inexorable force.

But for the many bankers who raised their hands when asked if they were there to sell their institutions - a majority of them from smaller institutions - the ultimate message may have been that they no longer control their destinies.

"We are getting a lot closer to the end of this consolidation ball game," said Christopher Flowers, director of the financial institutions group at Goldman, Sachs & Co. "Within five years we should have a market that is pretty well established."

Mr. Flowers predicted deal value would average $16.9 billion over the next five years.

But many of the industry's natural acquirers will only be interested in banks with asset levels between $10 billion and $25 billion, noted Donald Delson, director of the financial institutions group at Alex. Brown & Sons.

"Buyers are willing to pay up for a transaction that provides critical mass, one that is about one-third to one-half the size of the acquirer," he said. "If you are too small, no one may be interested in you."

Already in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, there are few mid-size banks left to buy small community banks, he told the audience.

If that were not enough to depress the swarm of community bankers in attendance, there were far more activist investors here than at last year's conference.

Jerome Davis, a professional investor from Greenwich, Conn., was highly visible, with his lawyer, David M. Perlmutter, seemingly glued to his side.

Other activists at the meeting included Stephen Gordon of Genesis Financial Partners, and Roger T. Conlan of Limited Risk Investors.

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