The latest entrant in the Chicago-area banking sweepstakes has its work cut out for it.

Standard Federal Bancorp., a Troy, Mich.-based thrift with $15 billion in assets, closed its acquisition of locally based Bell Bancorp. on June 10.

Chicago is a tough market, and Bell has not been a stellar competitor.

"It was a money mortuary," said analyst Michael Moran of Detroit's Roney and Co. "There was no asset generation, and therein lies (Standard Federal's) opportunity."

Bell started getting rid of employees before the sale was closed. Staff at its main office has been slashed from 200 people to 40, and Bell's computers have been tied in to Standard Federal's.

"This is a sleeping giant," Standard Federal chairman Thomas Ricketts said in a recent interview. "It had not upgraded its product line or computers, yet it was a sound and solid citizen with a good reputation."

With $1.9 billion in assets, Bell was no innovator. It still opened customer accounts using a typewriter, offered only one kind of checking account, and purchased most of its loans.

But Mr. Ricketts said Bell's 14 branches will provide an adequate base for selling Standard Federal's mortgages, checking accounts, and credit cards. He hopes to start advertising the new Bell - the thrift will keep its name - by mid-July.

Analysts lauded Standard Federal's takeover of Bell when the deal was first announced in December. They said the $362 million cash deal represented a fair price to enter the attractive Chicago market. The price represented 1.2 times Bell's book value.

Because California real estate represents about half of Bell's $1.3 billion in loans, some characterize it as a "Chicago thrift with an ocean view." Mr. Ricketts said $20 million of those loans are delinquent, which explains in part why the thrift was so cheap.

"True, this is not a cutting-edge, high earnings, high technology company, but which thrift (in Chicago) would you say was a dynamo?" Mr. Ricketts asked.

Standard Federal - which already had Michigan, Ohio, and Indiana locations - saw Bell as its best bet to enter the Chicago market, he added.

Perhaps the biggest challenge will be turning Bell into a viable competitor, which will go head to head with giants such as First Chicago NBD Corp. for checking accounts and credit cards, and with ABN Amro North America's LaSalle bank group, a large mortgage lender.

"We don't think Chicago is going to be any tougher than Detroit," Mr. Ricketts said. "There are good banks there, too."

However, analysts said Standard Federal should not underestimate the difficult job ahead.

"There's no question they have some challenges," said analyst Robert Ollech of Principal Financial Securities Inc. in Milwaukee. "It's a good thing they didn't pay a tremendous amount."

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