Kevin Cummings has been a college hoops star, consultant and, lately, chief executive of a bank.

That diverse background has come in handy in steering Investors Bancorp Inc.'s full-court press across the New York area since the economy collapsed.

The Short Hills, N.J., company has completed five acquisitions since Cummings took over as president and chief executive in 2008. The company's purchase of Brooklyn Federal Bancorp, which closed Friday, makes the $10.5 billion-asset Investors one of the few banks to leave the recession better than they entered it. Chalk that up to Cumming's history as a highly competitive problem solver.

How competitive? The former KPMG LLP partner can recall the exact number of points he scored in the mid-1970s as point guard at Middlebury College in Vermont. He once held the school's all-time scoring record.

"1,236," Cummings says, noting that he played before the three-point shot was implemented. "I'm fifth now."

Cummings' most-recent acquisition puts him into competition with another Northeastern consolidator: People's United Financial Inc. of Bridgeport, Conn. Three of Brooklyn Federal's five branches were on Long Island, a market that People's United entered just over a year ago after buying a 30-branch bank in Smithtown.

Cummings says he would like to buy thrifts and other types of banks with $2 billion or fewer in assets in northern New Jersey or around New York City. It's his home-market in more ways than one: he's a policeman's son from Jersey City.

Investors is now competing with People's United and other growth-minded banks, for depositors, and any other small banks around New York that could decide to sell. Investors needs both: it has a fast-growing commercial property book. Unlike many U.S. banks, its loans exceed deposits, so the company has to rely on costly wholesale and other borrowings.

People's United has provided a benefit to Investors, albeit in a roundabout way. Cummings' pitch to would-be sellers relies, in part, on his competitor's growth trajectory.

People's United, like Investors, used to be mutual thrift, or a savings bank owned by depositors. People's United converted to a publicly traded commercial bank in 2007. Investors is in the midst of that process, selling $500 million shares of common stock in a 2005 initial public offering.

Analysts expect Investors' majority holding thrift to file an offering for its remaining 55% stake, currently worth about $900 million, in the early part of this year.

This move is important because partially converted thrifts tend to trade at depressed prices to fully converted former thrifts. Investors is trading at a discount to tangible book, or loans and other assets minus intangibles like goodwill. People's United and other former mutual thrifts in the Northeast typically trade at roughly 120% tangible book.

So Cumming offers sellers a chance to get in on the ground floor. "What we try to tell them is: 'Look, we're not going to postpone [final step to conversion] forever," he says. "Join with us and you can look at the returns."

Brooklyn Federal was also a partially converted thrift, and Cummings said it would be ideal to buy another one because a mutual-to-mutual deal can have financial perks. For instance, the Brooklyn Federal deal barely cut into Investor's equity, because the buyer doled out a pittance of cash to the seller's public shareholders and did a two-for-one share exchange with the majority-holding mutual. It bought the mutual's interest for 50 cents on the dollar, essentially using its own shares as currency.

Another way to put it: Investors paid itself by taking over the mutual that it had just handed a bunch of its own stock. Such a favorable pricing structure was hard won: Investors agreed to settle a lawsuit from Brooklyn Federal shareholders who were angry over the low price, eventually agreeing to slightly increase the cash payout.

The acquisition had another tricky moving part: Investors lined up a buyer for more than $200 million of Brooklyn Federal's suboptimal commercial loans. So it just bought the best parts of Brooklyn Federal; namely the seller's deposits and a clean book of apartment building loans.

That made Brooklyn Federal Cumming's toughest deal yet. "If it was easy, anyone would do it," he says.

That comes from a person whose idea of fun involves playing basketball on Saturdays at 7 a.m. at the local recreational center, where he competes in a league for 50-somethings.

One former member of his Middlebury College squad is not surprised that Cummings still plays hard.

David Pentkowski, a practicing lawyer in New Jersey, called Cummings "a great shooter" and a "loyal teammate" who rallies the other guys when one dies or loses a loved one. Pentkowski used another apt descriptor: tenacious.

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