John Kanas is a shareholder's dream, and his competition's worst nightmare.

For years, the president of North Fork Bancorp. has been making waves in eastern Long Island's otherwise staid banking community.

Despite constant rebuffs from management of other banks, Mr. Kanas, 48, has persisted in buying up large stakes of his rivals' stock while relentlessly pushing takeover offers in his quest to expand the Mattituck, N.Y.-based bank.

That aggressive style has stirred up a mixture of respect and concern among his colleagues, who see him alternatively as a determined businessman and a challenge to their independence.

"He's one of those people that make other people nervous and whether that's right or wrong, that's the perception," said Thomas O'Brien, president and chief executive of Bronx-based North Side Savings Bank, a North Fork competitor. "His statements and his decisions have rankled a pretty stable business."

Mr. Kanas just believes he's doing what all bankers should do: enhance shareholder value by taking advantage of growth opportunities. "If that makes a banker aggressive, then I'm aggressive."

But his main rival, staunchly conservative Suffolk Bancorp, disagrees with his methods. Their decades-old struggle for dominance on Long Island's East End has now turned into a vicious war of words. Suffolk president and chief executive Edward J. Merz even accuses Mr. Kanas of endangering North Fork shareholders.

"I don't think you'll find anyone saying that except for Suffolk," Mr. Kanas said. "I think that frankly those kind of statements are not helpful to either side and I think they're knee-jerk reactions and based on emotions. I've been doing this for most of my career and I resent what Suffolk is saying."

Since taking the helm in 1977 at the age of 29, Mr. Kanas has turned North Fork from a $55 million-asset Suffolk County institution into an $2.7 billion-asset Long Island powerhouse. The bank has extended its reach to the edge of New York City and even into Westchester County.

Following its purchase of Eastchester Financial Corp. in 1991, North Fork barely survived the collapse of Long Island's real estate market, nonperforming assets that reached a level of 10% of assets, and losses of more than $32 million in 1992. Now, the bank is silencing the critics who expected its failure or purchase three years ago.

"There were some very negative things said, some of which were true and some of which were manifestations of our competitors that had poured fuel on the fire," Mr. Kanas said indignantly. "This company had grown for 18 years and took away a lot of customers from our competitors. It was our turn in the barrel and some people capitalized on that."

Posting a return on equity of almost 18% and a return on assets of 1.74% as of March 31, North Fork has restored the level of profitability it exhibited for the first part of Mr. Kanas' tenure and refocused its attention on expansion, most recently with its purchase of Bayside Federal for about $142 million last November.

"When he sees what he wants, he's very single-minded," Mr. O'Brien said. "He finds a way to get it done. He doesn't let it drop through lack of effort on his part."

Reflecting this determination, Mr. Kanas even interrupted the interview at a hotel near the Islip airport to purchase the property adjoining his farm at an auction.

"There are a lot of people who highly respect him, there are a lot of people who don't like him at all," said Douglas C. Manditch, president and CEO of Long Island Commercial Bank in Islandia. "There probably aren't a lot of people in the middle of the road. I wish him continued good luck, just as long as he stays away from my bank."

The hallmark of North Fork's growth has been Mr. Kanas' policy of buying stakes in his competitors for routine trading purposes and to serve as a launchpad for merger proposals. In fact, that's how he eliminated a thrift that had been North Fork's main rival.

Early in 1987, $700 million-asset Southold Savings Bank, just six miles away from Mattituck, converted to stock form. Its stock surged to $18 from its offering price of $10. But when the stock market crashed on Oct. 19, Southold's share price plummeted to $9 and Mr. Kanas wasted no time, buying up 4.9% of the thrift's stock in five days.

By Christmas, Southold had yielded to pressure from institutional investors and agreed to be purchased by the smaller North Fork, which then had $600 million of assets. The deal closed in August 1988.

"When everybody was getting ready to jump off buildings, we bought that company," he said. "We took advantage of circumstances."

That's typical of the self-assured Mr. Kanas. Around the same time, North Fork provided 5% of the capital needed to start the Bank of Great Neck, which eventually grew to $100 million of assets before agreeing in early 1995 to be bought by North Fork. That deal is expected to close in June.

And while some of Mr. Kanas' advances have been routinely rebuffed, he refuses to quit. At different times, North Fork had large stakes in Fidelity New York Federal Savings Bank and Bank of Smithtown and pressed both to sell. But Fidelity sold to Astoria Federal Savings and Loan Association a few months after North Fork's offer, while Bank of Smithtown bought back its stock.

Currently, North Fork owns just over 7% of the stock of Sunrise Bancorp, on its way to buying up to 9.9%. But the Sunrise board of directors has flatly rejected Mr. Kanas' offer to buy the Farmingdale-based thrift, although the offer is still on the table. Sunrise is facing a shareholder lawsuit over the rejection.

North Fork also made a grab for Hamptons Bancshares, but lost out to archrival Suffolk - which acquired the $153 million-asset institution in 1994.

Now, Mr. Kanas has his sights set on Suffolk itself. North Fork has bought 4.5% of its rival's stock and has applied to the Federal Reserve Board for permission to acquire up to 19.9%.

That has Suffolk officials, especially the 63-year-old Mr. Merz, hopping mad. Worried that North Fork wants to buy the company, the bank protested to the Fed, claiming that a merger between the two institutions would reduce the competition for the small-business loan market.

Mr. Merz even tried to persuade his stockholders last month that a stock acquisition by North Fork would be risky for them based on the bank's unsteady financial history and Mr. Kanas' aggressiveness.

Mr. Kanas called the anticompetitive claim "ridiculous," countering that the Long Island towns also have an array of money-center and regional institutions, as well as a "host" of mutual and public thrifts.

And he noted that North Fork has not made any offers to purchase Suffolk, either in stock or cash.

"I think it is interesting that they flatter themselves as to suggest that we have (made an offer)," he said. "Although that may change in the future, that is not our intention right now."

Last week, the Fed rejected Suffolk's complaints and gave North Fork its blessing to buy up to 19.9% of the Riverhead bank's stock.

The recent struggle is a continuation of a decades-long "natural" rivalry between the two East End banks, which compete head-to-head in many small communities. In fact, Suffolk used to be larger before North Fork started its growth spurt.

The battle also reflects the business philosophy of Mr. Kanas, a former middle school history and English teacher who joined North Fork in 1971 to run a branch in his hometown of East Moriches because the bank president offered to pay for his MBA.

"There's always a lot of emphasis on me because I'm flamboyant and talk a lot," Mr. Kanas said. "I'm certainly not laid-back. I'm paid to be aggressive in managing the company to maximize shareholder return."

His strategy for success combines solid bank management with steady, careful growth through in-market acquisitions that can be accretive immediately while providing solid middle-level management that can service more customers for North Fork.

"Your license to stay in business is to try to outperform the crowd," he said. "If you're satisfied with being an average performer or a below- average performer, then you risk someone taking away your right to be independent."

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