FARGO, N.D. - Mark A. Anderson may be the new president and chief executive officer of Community First Bankshares, but the license plate on his Lexus sport-utility vehicle still says "CFO."
So Mr. Anderson, the longtime chief financial officer of the $6.3 billion-asset company, is seeking employees' suggestions for a new vanity tag and has offered $100 for the winning entry. Among the nominations: "Ex CFO," "Prez," and "Top Dog."
But no matter what his license plate reads, Mr. Anderson remains a "numbers guy" at heart. And he says the numbers don't add up to justify his acquisitive company's remaining a buyer of community banks.
"The prospect of doubling or tripling the size of this organization is not as great as it was five years ago," said Mr. Anderson, who took over as CEO of the 13-year-old company in early March. "We have to be more focused on building up what we have and driving our employees to find more efficiencies. We have to look at how we can best deploy our capital and balance between core growth, stock buybacks, and acquisitions."
Mr. Anderson said his plan - at least in the near term - is to stress internal growth. Any acquisition his company makes, he said, would more likely be of an insurance agency than of a bank.
That's a big change for a banking company that since the end of 1994 has roughly tripled its assets. Most of this growth came from bank acquisitions - an average of three a year since 1990.
Analysts and colleagues said the policy shift indicates how the 42-year-old Mr. Anderson differs in style from fellow Community First co-founder and chairman Donald R. Mengedoth, who stepped down as president and CEO to concentrate on his role as incoming president of the American Bankers Association.
Mr. Mengedoth, 55, is known as a big-picture type who builds relationships with community banks that could be acquisition targets. Through his trade association work, for instance, he became acquainted with executives of $252 million-asset Valley National Corp. in El Cajon, Calif., which Community First bought last October.
Mr. Anderson, by contrast, is meticulous about details - he pores over the books to spot efficiencies in existing assets or any risk of overpaying in an acquisition.
"Don was the father of our company and really has had the vision of where this company came from and where it was going," said David A. Lee, Community First's vice chairman of regional banking. "Mark, on the other hand, has been the consummate CFO. He's a very, very strong numbers guy. There's not a lot that slips by him from that standpoint. But I think he'll adapt well in the new role."
Because bank acquisition activity has slowed, analysts said, Mr. Anderson's style might be better suited to Community First now.
"Mark is the right guy to lead the company at this time," said Jon G. Arfstrom, an analyst at Dain Rauscher Wessels in Minneapolis. "He's very disciplined. He's going to do a lot of things to focus the company's growth internally."
Community First says its brightest internal prospects are insurance and investment products, which penetrate only 13% and 7%, respectively, of the 350,000 households the company serves.
Ronald K. Strand, Community First's chief operating officer, said the company expects to pump up its investment business this year by selling more than $200 million of products, mostly mutual funds - up from $178 million last year. In insurance, its goal is more than $10 million of annual commission income, which probably would put it among the top 100 insurance sellers in the country. Community First earned $8.8 million from insurance in 1999.
Overall, Community First wants to raise the average number of accounts per household to at least four from the current 2.87.
Though Community First believes insurance and investments could offer the biggest - and quickest - boost, it also sees opportunities to improve its more traditional business lines.
For instance, some recent acquisitions in the Southwest have brought Community First banks that have a lot of deposits but not enough loans, Mr. Lee said. It wants these banks to pay more attention to small-business and commercial customers in order to improve their loan-to-deposit ratios.
"Coming from being the CFO to being the CEO, Mark's going to run Community First a little leaner and meaner than it has operated in the past," said Daniel E. Cardenas, a banking analyst at Howe Barnes Investments Inc. in Chicago. "He's younger and can be a little more aggressive at getting that done."
Mr. Anderson's interests outside the office range from golf and baseball to the culture and migration of persecuted Anabaptist sects. He even wrote a study of an Amish group known as the Hutterites, who emigrated to South Dakota from Europe. The book, he said, was "not exactly a best seller."
Last year's royalty check: $12.
At the banking company, Mr. Strand said, he wants internal growth alone to power 10% annual growth in earnings per share.
But Community First, which was founded in the Upper Midwest, is not quitting the acquisition game altogether. In fact it wants to further penetrate faster-growing markets in the West and Southwest.
After making a string of bank deals in Arizona, California, and Utah, Community First is now setting its sights on insurance agencies in these states.
Many independent community banks have effectively taken themselves off the sales block with their "unrealistic expectations" that they should get at least three times book value in a deal, Mr. Anderson said. Insurance agencies, on the other hand, are a relative bargain. Mr. Strand said most agencies can be bought for 1.25 to 1.4 times the amount they generate in annual commission revenue.
"It's easier to go out and buy an insurance agency and make it work than it is to buy a bank and make it work," Mr. Strand said. Community First, which already owns agencies in 40 of its 156 banking markets, also wants to add insurance sales to the transaction-oriented banking Web site it announced this month.
Mr. Mengedoth said he expects Community First in time could return to bank acquisitions, but he acknowledged that it needs to digest the ones it already has.
"If there is a silver lining in not making acquisitions, that's it," he said. "It gives us time to refocus our energies."
Community First might have had little choice but to take this new tack, said David B. Moore, an analyst at Chicago's Podesta & Co. Like most banking companies, it has suffered a stock-price decline in the past year; it was trading late Thursday at $16.25 a share, compared with $24 last July.
At the lower share price, Mr. Moore said, Community First cannot afford to buy many banks.
"They don't have much of a choice except to take this direction," he said, "and even if they did, I think they still would. They need to prove to the market that they can grow without bank acquisitions."
But wringing more efficiency from Community First's predominantly rural base is "very much a challenge," Mr. Anderson said. "A rapidly growing market makes it easier to execute your strategy. Mistakes get covered up by growth."