At a time when most banks want to keep customers away from branches, TCF Financial Corp. is proud to be retrograde.

While other banks focus on high-net-worth customers, TCF caters to blue- collar workers who want free checking accounts.

William A. Cooper, the brash, 53-year-old chairman of this once- suffering thrift is outspoken about his strategy to turn a profit by being contrarian.

"Some guys make a lot of money selling Cadillacs, and some guys make a lot of money selling Fords," Mr. Cooper said in a recent interview. "We sell Fords. The guys that sell Cadillacs sell far fewer and for bigger amounts of money. We sell more for smaller amounts of money."

Like almost every other thrift in the country, TCF says it is trying to be like a bank. Yet it defies the common wisdom of most bankers. While banks court the high-rolling, high-income customers, TCF tries to lure the lunch-bucket crowd into its branches.

Mr. Cooper mocked bankers who believe they can't make money on working- class folks. He pointed to his 10-year reign at TCF, where he used a focus on working-class customers to turn the failing institution into one of the best-performing banking companies in Minnesota. Only TCF and rival First Bank System Inc. earn more than 2% on assets in the state.

The difference between Mr. Cooper and other bankers, he explained, is attitude. While First Bank recently instituted a teller fee, following the lead of First Chicago Corp., Mr. Cooper has promised customers totally free checking with no charge to visit a teller.

Like many other institutions, TCF uses its branches to sell annuities, mutual funds, insurance, mortgages, title insurance, second mortgages, and consumer loans. The branches are also referral points for the company's growing finance company, which operates in 16 states. As Mr. Cooper pointed out, teller fees discourage people from entering the retail sales environment his bank is trying to create.

"Can you imagine if every time you went to a Target" discount store, "you were charged a fee to talk to someone?" Mr. Cooper asked.

Many banks are looking for ways to control customer behavior. First Manhattan Consulting Group reported in December that nearly 60% of banks surveyed were developing policies to curb transactions and nearly half were creating self-service features.

Mr. Cooper, who recently shaved the beard he'd been wearing for 10 years, said he embraces change. With 800 automated teller machines and a telephone banking system in place, TCF is doing its part to encourage customers to perform routine transactions electronically, he said.

When someone opens a checking account at TCF, a banker takes the new customer over to an ATM and demonstrates how to use the card.

The company operates 38 supermarket branches. Mr. Cooper views these as complements to, rather than replacements of, traditional branches.

Checking accounts and low-interest savings accounts are also cheap sources of funding for the consumer loans TCF makes, Mr. Cooper said. TCF collects a fair amount of fees on those accounts, too. The thrift reported deposit-fee income of $17.6 million for the first quarter.

For a $7 billion-asset company, TCF has a sizable number of checking accounts: a total of 634,000 in Minnesota, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin. But 360,000 are in Minnesota alone, mainly in Minneapolis.

To put that in perspective, First National Bank of Chicago, the city's largest with $47 billion of assets, has 650,000 retail checking accounts in its home market. Norwest Corp. and First Bank, the biggest banking companies in Minneapolis, declined to disclose their checking account totals.

"They're set up to handle a lot of small accounts," said Dain Bosworth analyst Ben Crabtree. "Bill Cooper has always said, 'A little number times a big number is still a big number.'"

At TCF, checking accounts are not a loss leader. And according to Mr. Cooper, every single TCF branch makes money. "A lot of it just has to do with how you measure it," he said. "Most people look at the branch as a cost center. We look at it as a profit center."

Keeping the branches open 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. during the week and staying open on some traditional bank holidays helps.

TCF caters to customers who value convenience over the opportunity to earn interest on their checking accounts. And its customer base is a market profile of what most banks are trying to avoid.

The composite TCF customer is 34.5 years old with a median household income of $45,400. Nearly 60% of TCF's customers do not have college degrees. And 21% have household incomes of less than $30,000.

Mr. Cooper also courts college students, signing agreements with colleges to offer smart cards and locating branches near universities. Today's college students are tomorrow's customers, he said.

The company's Minnesota bank is its best-performing, but TCF has been an acquisitive institution in the past nine years, buying thrifts in Illinois, Wisconsin, and Michigan. TCF has made a practice of buying struggling institutions in Midwest markets similar to Minneapolis.

By trying to create banks in each state that are virtually identical to the Minnesota model, Mr. Cooper said, he hopes the entire company will earn 2% on assets by the end of the decade.

In Michigan, he has his hands full after the 1995 acquisition of $2.4 billion-asset Great Lakes Bancorp., based in Ann Arbor.

Integrating Great Lakes has not been easy, "but TCF has done a tremendous job," said analyst Michael Moran of Roney & Co. in Detroit.

Mr. Cooper is no stranger to Michigan. A former Detroit police officer, he was controller of Michigan National Corp.'s lead bank before taking the top post at TCF.

He said he is confident the Michigan unit will one day be a high- performing company. "The longer we own a bank," Mr. Cooper said, "the bigger the net interest margin, the more fee income we collect. What we do is a brick-at-a-time business."

Return on assets at TCF's Illinois unit is 1.49%, but Mr. Cooper predicted it, too, would one day earn 2%. TCF has been in Illinois since 1987 and recently announced the acquisition of $193 million-asset BOC Financial Corp.

TCF is going against its traditional strategy in Ohio, opening branches in Columbus, a market where it had no prior presence. It started by opening two supermarket branches and may open more.

Wisconsin has been a disappointment for TCF. With $615 million of assets, its bank there only earns 0.7% on assets. Mr. Moran said he wouldn't be surprised if TCF eventually divests itself of that franchise.

Mr. Cooper said he believes he can succeed in Wisconsin. It just takes time for the TCF model to work, he said. His company has been able to operate profitably in Illinois with a small presence.

Economy of scale is another piece of conventional wisdom Mr. Cooper likes to scoff at. A $7 million supermarket branch is among the most profitable offices TCF runs, he said.

"There are a lot of things in banking that are held as almost religious beliefs," Mr. Cooper said. "One is that big banks make more money than little banks. But there is no relation between profitability and size of banks."

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