After years of success in rural hamlets of Oklahoma, a community bank company is taking on the state's big cities-and big banks.

BancFirst Corp., Oklahoma City, is making a serious push into both Oklahoma City and Tulsa. Although it's based in Oklahoma City, until last year the $1.2 billion-asset company had only one branch there and had focused on its 50 branches in country towns.

While its community ties in county seats and other small towns have served BancFirst well, the company has adopted a different strategy-and virtually different banking style-to pursue much-needed loan growth in the cities.

It's a bit unusual for an institution BancFirst's size to take such divergent paths simultaneously, observers said, and it gives the company two distinct personalities.

"There's an awful lot of differences between life and culture in Oklahoma City and Tulsa and the small, rural areas of Oklahoma," said Thomas Loy, executive director of the Conn Graduate School of Community Banking at Oklahoma City University. "Senior management's challenge will be to keep bankers from both sides of the business thinking well of their counterparts' very different contributions."

BancFirst is going about business differently in Tulsa and Oklahoma City than it does in places like Seminole and Konawa where it has branches.

David E. Rainbolt, BancFirst's president and chief executive officer, played down the cultural differences between his city and country staffs. Still, he established metropolitan and community banking groups last year.

The company gained a foothold in Tulsa with its 1994 acquisition of $37 million-asset First City Bank, Tulsa, and strengthened its position in Oklahoma City with last year's deal for $136 million-asset City Bankshares.

In the state's two major cities, BancFirst is focused narrowly on serving middle-market business customers, which Mr. Rainbolt defined as candidates for loans of $250,000 to $10 million.

And instead of relying on the longtime community bankers in its small towns, BancFirst is trying to carve a niche in Oklahoma City and Tulsa with an aggressive drive to hire experienced hands away from other banks. Its big-city competitors include Bank of Oklahoma, which with $5 billion of assets is the state's largest bank, and out-of-state giants NationsBank Corp. and Banc One Corp., both of which completed acquisitions in Oklahoma this year.

Maintaining a commitment to full-service banking in rural Oklahoma, where bank officers know everyone in town and get their hands dirty visiting farming customers, while also developing a specialty in middle- market commercial lending in Oklahoma City and Tulsa gives BancFirst much- needed diversification, Mr. Rainbolt said.

The community banking group generates good yields and probably will continue to do so as long as big mistakes are avoided, Mr. Rainbolt said. But its growth prospects are limited.

So slack is loan demand in much of rural Oklahoma that many of BancFirst's rural offices have loan-to-deposit ratios in the 50% range, said LaVerne Dowding, president of the bank's Guthrie market.

The metropolitan business may be more volatile, however. When the next downturn comes, Mr. Rainbolt said, it will be the community group that gives the company stability. And while it will generate little internal growth, it may grow through acquisitions. Mr. Rainbolt said he expects the next downturn to offer buying opportunities.

But financial performance wasn't the only stimulus to BancFirst's move into the big cities. The company, built from seven rural banks that chairman H.E. "Gene" Rainbolt began acquiring in the 1960s and several more acquisitions since the holding company was founded in 1983, was already efficient and throwing off good profits, said David Rainbolt, the founder's son.

Mr. Rainbolt said he saw it as an exciting chance to manage a company that was growing. Still, he's not moving away from the company's original purpose.

Deep roots in and close ties to rural Oklahoma mean employing people like Karen James, who heads two branches about 50 miles east of Oklahoma City. She might be called a branch manager at another bank, but with profit-and-loss responsibility for a unit with $50 million of assets, she is president of BancFirst's Seminole and Konawa market.

This hands-on management style has worked well in rural markets.

And earnings, which have risen for the past six years, suggest the Rainbolts have a firm grasp of both types of markets they are in, said David E. Mudd, an analyst at Howe Barnes Investments in Chicago. "They know where their historic strength lies," he said.

The dual strategy has produced a return on assets of better than 1.3% for the past three years and return on equity above 14%.

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