CHICAGO - Old Kent Financial Corp. in Grand Rapids, Mich., has relocated three of its top executives to Chicago to raise the company's profile in the area and improve sluggish performance after a series of acquisitions.

The $20 billion-asset company said it wants to strengthen retail and corporate banking operations in Illinois, a state that accounts for roughly one-third of the bank's assets. Old Kent also said there is an opportunity for aggressive growth there.

The executives include Robert Warrington, a vice chairman, Dan Terpsma, head of corporate banking, and Michelle Van Dyke, who was recently promoted to president of Old Kent-Illinois and still oversees the corporation's retail operations.

"We needed and wanted to raise the level of commitment to Chicago," Ms. Van Dyke said in an interview Friday. Ms. Van Dyke said several senior vice presidents were also relocated to Chicago as part of the effort.

Old Kent's presence in the state has mushroomed through a series of acquisitions since 1998. Last year alone, the company announced three deals, including the purchases of $1.6 billion-asset Grand Premier Financial Inc. in Wauconda, of $1 billion-asset Pinnacle Banc Group Inc. in Oak Brook, and of $900 million-asset Merchants Bancorp Inc. in Aurora. In 1998, Old Kent completed the purchase of $1.9 billion-asset First Evergreen Corp. in Evergreen Park.

Together, the acquisitions more than tripled the number of Old Kent branches in Illinois, from 25 to 84.

Ms. Van Dyke said Old Kent's expansion in Illinois isn't likely to slow, and she noted that the company has the ability to handle three to four deals a year if the opportunities arise.

"Acquisition has and will continue to be our major mode of growth," Ms. Van Dyke said. "We do that really well and feel like in order to build our critical mass here it's something we have to focus on."

Analysts said the senior management moves come at a good time. Even as Old Kent expanded in the Chicago area, its operations there lagged that of the company's western Michigan and Detroit markets.

"This probably would have been occurring without the acquisitions," said Timothy Willi, analyst at A.G. Edwards & Sons in St. Louis. "But it is certainly more important now because they are integrating these new companies."

Mr. Willi added the company is "clearly committed to elevating the profitability of the area to what other parts of the company are doing. Their western Michigan operations are the most profitable for them. Detroit is doing very well. But Chicago is a third of their company, and it's not operating where it should be."

Fred A. Cummings, an analyst with McDonald Investments Inc. in Cleveland, said Old Kent experienced some earnings disappointments from Chicago last year and the move isn't a surprise.

"I think it is a good move because Chicago is such a dynamic growing marketplace," Mr. Cummings said. "I think this shows they are serious about addressing those disappointments." ?

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