Location, location, location - and a stronger focus on consumer lending - has done wonders for Fifth Third Bancorp.

The Cincinnati bank has increased its holdings of home equity lines of credit in the extremely competitive Midwest market.

After years of relatively slow growth, Fifth Third increased its volume of home equity lines of credit 56% in 1994, to $248 million. And already this year, its portfolio of such lines has grown 58%, to $392 million outstanding.

"I think most of the banks in the Midwest have had pretty robust growth in home equity lending," said Fred A. Cummings, a bank analyst at McDonald & Co., a regional brokerage firm based in Cleveland.

"But Fifth Third has had more robust growth because they are able to price lower. They have a lower cost structure so they have more pricing flexibility," he said.

Indeed, banks in the Great Lakes region - Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Indiana - have experienced strong growth in home equity lending since 1993.

According to Regional Financial Associates, a West Chester, Pa., consulting firm, home equity lending in the Great Lakes region grew 12.2% last year.

Equity lending at some of the largest banks in the area grew likewise.

The amount of home equity lines of credit held at Firstar Corp., Milwaukee, grew 22%, to $288 million last year; at NBD Bancorp, Detroit, 8.6% to $704 million; and at First Chicago Corp., 7% to $704 million.

According to Regional Financial Associates, Ohio had above-average home equity loan growth for the Great Lakes region last year - 15.2%. That is the most substantial growth in the Buckeye State since 1990.

"It seems to me that Ohio took longer to recover than the rest of the country," said Sophia Koropeckyj, senior economist at Regional Financial Associates. "That left it with a much stronger economy in '94."

Fifth Third followed suit. Last year was the bank's best for home equity lending.

Jeffrey C. Beach, a Fifth Third bank consumer lending manager, said lower fees, a 100% loan-to-value second mortgage, and aggressive marketing to its current client base helped the bank boost production.

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