When Mutual of Omaha Bank was established last year, its executives figured that if all went according to plan, the thrift unit of Mutual of Omaha Insurance Co. would have branches in 15 to 20 states and assets of $1 billion and $2 billion within five years.
But the thrift blew past its goals late last month when it acquired the branches and deposits of two failed banks at a bargain price, and now its chairman and chief executive, Jeff Schmid, is adjusting his growth targets. With the backing of its deep-pocketed parent, Mutual of Omaha Bank intends to continue buying troubled or failed banks, and within 10 years it could even "rival" its $19.5 billion-asset parent in size, Mr. Schmid said.
"I think there is a lot of opportunity out there in the acquisition area," he said in an interview last week. "That would be my priority today."
The thrift got its start when Mutual of Omaha formed Omaha Financial Holdings in early 2007. By the end of the year it had acquired three banks in Nebraska and Colorado and rebranded them under the Mutual of Omaha name. Before buying the failed banks last month, the thrift had 14 branches in four states.
The business plan from the beginning was unlike those of other insurance company-owned banks or thrifts, which typically have a few branches near the parent's headquarters and rely chiefly on the Internet to generate deposits.
"When we started this thing about a year ago, the idea was to build a great banking company, identifying markets" where the Mutual of Omaha brand "was already strong in the best growth markets," Mr. Schmid said.
It entered California, Nevada, and Arizona when it bought the branches and deposits of the $3.4 billion-asset First National Bank of Nevada in Reno and the $250 million-asset First Heritage Bank in Newport Beach, Calif., last month.
The purchases more than quadrupled the thrift's assets, to $4 billion, and tripled its branch count, to 42, without breaking it. Mutual of Omaha paid roughly $130 million for the deposits a premium of 4.41%.
"Quite honestly, California, Arizona, and Nevada were already in our top six" markets Mutual of Omaha had been eyeing for expansion, Mr. Schmid said. Given the branches' locations and the price Mutual of Omaha Bank paid, "I'm not sure that it could be more perfect for what we are trying to accomplish," he said.
The parent company has $4 billion of capital and plans to "leverage" it to build the banking line, Mr. Schmid said.
The thrift is also using its parent's resources to help it integrate the banks it acquires, he said. Without that backing, he said, buying a bank such as the one in Reno would have been "like a guppy swallowing a whale."
The parent company's human resources department has been on the ground with employees of the failed banks and transitioning them to Mutual of Omaha, Mr. Schmid said. "They are handling all those really important pieces that an $800 million-asset bank wouldn't be able to handle."
Industry watchers say this is a good time for well-capitalized companies such as Mutual of Omaha to buy banks.
"There are opportunities out there where banks are between a rock and a hard place," said Richard Levenson, the president of Western Financial Corp., an investment banking firm in San Diego. "They need to raise additional capital and can't. So they start looking for banks to acquire them."
And Mutual of Omaha's target areas including Utah, Washington, Florida, Nashville, Atlanta, and Charlotte are some of the best places to be looking for deals right now, he said.
"They are hitting all the hot spots," Mr. Levenson said. "It sounds like they know exactly where all the opportunities are."
Still, growing too fast can cause problems.
Hal Oswalt, the president and chief executive of Brintech Inc. in Austin, a subsidiary of United Community Banks Inc. of Blairsville, Ga., said Mutual of Omaha bit off a large chunk with its recent acquisitions, adding nearly 600 employees.
"Every organization and bank in my experience has its own culture, and that tone is set by the management team," Mr. Oswalt said. "So the one thing they are going to have to do quickly is integrate cultures."
Moreover, the company's management style will likely have to undergo some changes, he said.
"You manage a $750 million-asset organization different than one that is a multibillion institution," he said. "One of the challenges will be to have the right organization structure and the infrastructure putting the banks on common operating systems."