Commercial Federal Corp. of Nebraska, continuing its rapid expansion through acquisitions, said Thursday it would buy an Iowa thrift for $201 million.

The target, $1.5 billion-asset Amerus Bank of Des Moines, would make Commercial Federal the second-largest depository institution in Iowa's capital, trailing only a Norwest Corp. subsidiary.

The $7.2 billion-asset Commercial Federal would be fourth-largest in Iowa deposits upon the anticipated completion of the Amerus purchase-it could be cash and stock or all cash-in the third quarter.

In common with many of the nation's larger thrifts, Commercial Federal has assumed an eat-or-be-eaten posture. Its deal for Amerus, which is owned by an insurance company, is not likely to be the last, said Gary Matter, senior vice president and controller.

"If we want to be a survivor, we have to be an acquirer," he said.

Including Amerus, its largest acquisition to date, Commercial Federal has announced five deals in the last six months. When all are completed, the Omaha-based thrift company would be up to $10.3 billion of assets.

Analysts say thrifts' "buy or be bought" decisions stem from the fact that the mortgage business is increasingly concentrated among relatively few large-scale competitors. Smaller thrifts are having a harder time building on their traditional strengths in residential lending.

"It is hard to grow internally," said Salomon Smith Barney analyst Thomas O'Donnell. "It is easier to build through acquisitions."

Mr. Matter said Commercial Federal recognized the need to expand several years ago. It has tended to buy small Midwest thrifts.

As a result, it has branches in Colorado, Kansas, and Oklahoma in addition to Iowa and Nebraska. Ten of Amerus' 47 branches are in states new to 115-branch Commercial Federal: Minnesota, Missouri, and South Dakota. And 36 Amerus branches are in supermarkets.

Commercial Federal expects to close another Iowa acquisition today- Liberty Financial Corp., a $621 million-asset West Des Moines banking company.

Relative to the high prices paid for sizable regional banks in the Midwest, Commercial Federal has been able to pay modest premiums. Amerus is costing it 1.9 times book value and 14.8 times 1997 earnings.

The deal would add to earnings this year thanks to anticipated cost cuts of 40%, or $13 million, of Amerus' operating expenses.

Amerus' parent, Amerus Group Co., a Des Moines insurer, plans to keep the thrift's top management, including chief executive officer Marcia S. Hanson. She will head a new subsidiary, Amerus Home Equity, which will employ 175 of Amerus Bank's 570 people.

Amerus got its name after the 1994 merger of Central Life Assurance Co. with American Mutual Life Insurance Co. The thrift was called Midland Savings Bank until April 1995.

Trying to be less thrift-like, Amerus Bank has half its portfolio in home equity loans and the rest in consumer loans, leases, and a small number of business loans.

Ms. Hanson, a former Des Moines bank president for Milwaukee's Firstar Corp., said Amerus Group decided it wanted to concentrate on insurance and annuities. Negotiations with Commercial Federal began in early December, she said.

In addition to Liberty and Amerus, Commercial Federal agreed last month to buy $402 million-asset Perpetual Midwest Financial Inc., Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

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