North Fork Bancorp, which became a major force in suburban New York through a rapid series of acquisitions, is taking a different approach to the Big Apple itself. It is building from scratch.

The $10.7 billion-asset company, based in Melville, N.Y., said Monday that it would open 12 branches in Manhattan and Brooklyn over the next year and hire 100 people. The aim: to woo small-business and high-end retail customers from the likes of Citigroup and Chase Manhattan Corp.

North Fork, which already is grabbing talent from big competitors, could well make a mark in the hotly contested market, analysts say. That is because some of New York's most prominent banks have been distracted by global economic woes and restructurings.

"North Fork has an opportunity to attract small-business and middle- market lenders and mold them to their way of thinking," said Mark Fitzgibbon, an analyst at Sandler O'Neill & Partners.

North Fork now has 110 branches on Long Island, in Connecticut, and elsewhere around New York City-the result of six acquisitions from 1994 to 1997.

The company has long coveted a larger presence in the metropolitan area. But acquisition plans have been thwarted three times since 1997. Steep acquisition premiums and a dearth of remaining attractive candidates has forced North Fork to revise its urban strategy.

"We thought we would be able to buy a bank, but it has just gotten too expensive," John Adam Kanas, chairman and chief executive officer of North Fork, said in a telephone interview.

New York rival Astoria Financial Corp. beat out North Fork last October in a deal for Long Island Savings Bank, repeating the previous year's coup for Greater New York Savings Bank. Meanwhile, Roslyn Bancorp last month completed its purchase of T R Financial Corp.

"The acquisition environment is much more difficult now," Mr. Fitzgibbon said. North Fork, he added, "is still pretty darn opportunistic, but they are also very cognizant of a deal's effects on their returns."

Analysts said North Fork's niche in small-business banking and its desire to expand into asset management would fit well with its New York expansion plans.

Half the new offices are to be traditional storefronts, but the others are to be dedicated to small-business and private banking, the bank said.

"A smaller company like North Fork has the flexibility to be more service-oriented and attract small-business customers," said Gerard Cassidy, an analyst at Tucker Anthony Inc. "Big banks are pushing into small-business banking, but they are often too bureaucratic."

Mr. Kanas said consolidations and downsizings have opened a window for North Fork to lure employees away from bigger banks, such as Republic New York Corp., Chase Manhattan Corp., and HSBC Americas Inc.

North Fork has hired James LoGatto, a veteran of Republic, to open the new branches. Mr. LoGatto joined North Fork Monday as senior vice president and market manager. He was previously a managing director at Republic, in charge of building the $50.4 billion-asset bank's private banking and retail network in Manhattan.

Mr. LoGatto's departure marks the second senior level defection from Republic since January, when Robert A. Cohen, the bank's vice chairman and head of global private banking, resigned to pursue other interests.

Republic is preparing a restructuring program to cut $50 million in annual expenses and focus resources on its core private banking and retail businesses. Republic had a loss of $92.7 million in the third quarter of 1998 from steep losses in Russian securities.

"A lot of bigger banks are distracted right now," Mr. Fitzgibbon said.

North Fork has been quietly preparing for its urban de novo push, building off its acquisition in June of Amivest, a boutique investment manager with $700 million of assets under management for institutions and individuals. Terms of that deal were not disclosed.

North Fork now has two branches in Manhattan. One came with its 1995 purchase of Extebank in New York. A second Manhattan branch opended in October. Another eight offices are to be built in Manhattan. Four branches are to built in Brooklyn.

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