While several midwestern banking companies are struggling to sustain their profit growth levels of recent years, Old Kent Financial Corp. is sticking to projections of double-digit growth.
The Grand Rapids, Mich., company says it is shooting to achieve 12% to 15% growth in per-share earnings by grabbing market share, through acquisition if necessary, in a region where bigger rivals such as KeyCorp and Bank One Corp. have disappointed Wall Street.
"Large superregional banks are struggling with their franchise, and that is an attractive environment in which we have been able to overwhelm the competition," said David Wagner, chairman, president, and chief executive officer of Old Kent. "The opportunity has presented itself to take things up another notch."
In that respect, Bank One's woes could not come at a better time for Old Kent, which this year turned its focus to the Chicago market. In a quest for middle-market customers, Old Kent went on a shopping spree, buying four banks there with a total of $5.4 billion in assets. Old Kent, now 14th in Chicago-area deposits, would rank fifth after the last deal closes, which is expected to happen in the second quarter.
In the third quarter, a strong one for the industry, Old Kent's earnings rose to 59 cents a share, an 18% increase from a year earlier.
The company has racked up 40 consecutive years of earnings and dividend growth, a feat only bested by only two other public companies - Emerson Electric and American Home Products. And in November, Standard & Poor's added Old Kent to the S&P 500, giving the company a little more cache on Wall Street.
"They are well positioned in the Midwest markets," said Frank J. Barkocy, a principal at Keefe Managers Inc. in New York. "They have a diversified business. They are among the more efficient operators. They are employing a broader array of delivery channels, including the Internet. They have focused compensation plans that are incentive-laden. The proof is in the pudding with their long-term record."
In contrast, KeyCorp has had trouble reaping gains from its investment bank unit, McDonald Investments, and National City Corp. and U.S. Bancorp have reduced earnings targets, in part because of lower interest rate margins.
Old Kent's performance over the years has afforded it a relatively high price-to-earnings ratio of 18.7. The high P/E protects the company from potential bidders and makes stock deals easier.
"With their premium price-to-earnings ratio, Old Kent can afford to pay up and still make them accretive, said Joseph Roberto, an analyst for Keefe, Bruyette & Woods Inc.
"We do deals when we can do them and they are good for the shareholder," Mr. Wagner said. "We don't want to feel like we have to make two deals a year to make our financial obligations."
Mr. Roberto of Keefe said that Old Kent's interest rate margin has been widening, and it maintains a lot of liquidity on the balance sheet. It has also been shifting out of lower-yielding loans, such as residential mortgages.
Old Kent is looking to offer various products to middle-market and small-business customers, from estate planning to investment management and insurance products.
"We have seen some real synergy that has come together with our customers - whether it is a client not used to handling an ESOP or a leverage buyout or a retirement plan," said Robert Warrington, a vice chairman of Old Kent.