Norman M. Jones is betting that efficiency gains and acquisitions will energize Metropolitan Financial Corp. and preserve its independence. But experts say success is far from guaranteed for the sprawling Minneapolis-based thrift.

Mr. Jones, chairman and chief executive of the $6.9 billion-asset company, believes divestitures and branch closings already under way can restore profits to levels. he considers satisfactory.

What is more, he is adopting an audacious stance on acquisitions. He believes Metropolitan should buy banks and sell their fee-based products through his 190 branches.

"I don't know why it wouldn't work," he said in an interview last week.

Mr. Jones said his plans are motivated by a buy-or-be-bought banking environment. To ensure independence, he wrote in Metropolitan's 1992 annual report that the thrift must attain a "critical mass" of $10 billion.

Anemic Stock Price

But getting there is another matter. With Metropolitan's stock trading at book value, Mr. Jones has a severe bidding disadvantage in stock-swap deals.

Indeed, the company's low stock price and profitability have heightened its potential to be taken over. Despite good asset quality and capital, Metropolitan delivered a weak 0.77% return on assets last quarter.

"Norm runs a class act and wants to remain independent, but Metropolitan without question is a desirable target," said Kenneth Puglisi, an analyst at Chicago Corp.

Mr. Jones, who is viewed as a one-man show, reclaimed the chief executive's post one year ago. Subsequently, the company's president and executive vice president resigned. They have not been replaced.

Mr. Jones, who at Feb. 1 owned 2.7% of Metropolitan's stock, said he reclaimed the reins because the thrift needed strong guidance in an uncertain climate. "With all this merger I activity, I decided it was better to be back as CEO," he said.

Regulatory Adviser

In the two years before his return, Mr. Jones monitored Metropolitan from the chairman's office, spending spare time as a regulatory adviser. He still serves as chairman of the Savings Association Insurance Fund Advisory Board.

At Metropolitan, Mr. Jones quickly asserted his vision. In an unorthodox move this spring, he tried to buy National City Bancorp, a Minneapolis bank with $550 million of assets. Despite a preliminary agreement, the deal fell apart. No official explanation was given, but analysts speculate that the thrift could not withstand dilution from a stock swap nor goodwill from a cash purchase.

Mr. Jones, who is earning base pay of $400,000, says he is not retreating from his bank-buying strategy. One barrier will be lifted this fall, when Metropolitan spins off a realty brokerage and a title company to shareholders. It then will have legal clearance to hold multiple charters.

The Banc One Model

Mr. Jones said he envisions scooping up banks and operating them under a multicharter holding company, "like Banc One." At the same time, he is cutting costs. Metropolitan said in the first quarter that it would close 17 branches.

At an operational level, acquisitions should be fairly routine for Mr. Jones, who has engineered almost 30 buyouts over the past decade.

Analysts, however, warn that spiraling takeover prices could put a crimp in his plans.

"The question is, what price would Metropolitan have to pay for that rite of passage," said Bruce Harting, a thrift analyst at Salomon Brothers Inc.

Succession at Issue

A further concern, analysts say, is whether Mr. Jones, who will turn 63 soon, has a management team capable of running an expansionist operation.

"There is a question about management succession and development at Metropolitan," said Steven R. Schroll, an analyst at Piper, Jaffray & Hopwood, Minneapolis.

But Mr. Jones says perceptions that he runs a one-man show "are wrong." He claims to be building a strong team of, managers who can run the company when he leaves.

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