After doubling its assets to $11.7 billion through nine acquisitions in two years, Commercial Federal Corp. is embarking on a new strategy.
"We're just going to keep our head down and keep ourselves focused," said William A. Fitzgerald, chairman and chief executive officer.
Commercial Federal is not doing a lot of studies, he added. "We're mostly saying, 'Let's make some decisions and we'll correct things as we go.'"
Most of those decisions are designed to make Commercial Federal, a 111- year-old thrift company, look more like a bank. Having made his company big enough in his view to survive, Mr. Fitzgerald is looking to add bank-style offerings, including investment products and small-business loans, to his mix.
"As we looked at what the real world was, we said what we really need to be is a commercial bank," Mr. Fitzgerald said.
Indeed, the company's slogan is "It's a great bank."
The strategy makes Commercial Federal similar to many large thrift companies-including Cleveland's Charter One Financial Inc., Pennsylvania's Sovereign Bancorp, and Seattle's Washington Mutual Inc.-that are seeking to diversify from their mortgage lending roots. Succeeding at that strategy is particularly crucial for Commercial Federal, analysts say; its many acquisitions have made the company an attractive takeover target.
"They realize what they need to do, but it's not going to be easy," said David Mudd, an analyst with Howe Barnes Investments in Chicago. "They need to improve returns" or they will be taken over.
Commercial Federal earned $67 million for the 12 months ended June 30, the close of its fiscal year, up 23% from the preceding year. Return on assets was 1.02% and return on equity 15.05%, both excluding merger charges.
Largely thanks to its acquisitions, Commercial Federal operates in several attractive banking markets, including Denver and Kansas City, Mo. It also has considerable heft in Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, and Oklahoma, which makes it appealing to banking companies such as U.S. Bancorp, Banc One Corp., or Norwest Corp., analysts said.
Whether Commercial Federal gets taken over by one of these companies depends on how they integrate these acquisitions, Mr. Mudd said. Commercial Federal has closed six buyout transactions this year and announced an $83 million deal for Midland Bank of Lee's Summit, Mo., last month.
Mr. Fitzgerald said he has no intention of selling the company his grandfather co-founded. Instead, he plans to use his acquisitions to make his company's balance sheet look more like that of a bank.
To that end, Commercial Federal has been buying banks or thrifts with bank-like strategies.
"We're not just looking for branches in markets where we want to expand," Mr. Fitzgerald said. "We're also looking for bank talent."
Mr. Fitzgerald said that as Commercial Federal grows, he wants to keep much of the management of the companies it buys. He is counting on executives from Liberty Financial, an Iowa bank Commercial bought in February, to help develop a companywide small-business lending operation.
Mr. Fitzgerald acknowledges that making the most out of his acquisitions will be difficult. But, he says, he has faced tougher challenges. In the early 1990s, he had to fire more than 500 workers and sell assets to keep Commercial Federal afloat.
Then, in the mid-1990s, Mr. Fitzgerald had to fight dissident directors who tried to force him to sell the company. After buying out those directors in 1996, Mr. Fitzgerald went on the acquisition trail and turned Commercial Federal into the 10th-largest thrift company in the country.
"Our objective is to create a good Midwest regional franchise that has significant value," Mr. Fitzgerald said.
Like other big thrift companies, Commercial Federal goes after traditional savings and loan customers-"not a yuppie, not a high-end customer," Mr. Fitzgerald said. He is content to leave those consumers to larger competitors, including Norwest Corp. and U.S. Bancorp, both of Minneapolis.
Analysts generally buy Mr. Fitzgerald's strategy.
"When you look at the people they're going after-these people are not financially sophisticated. They're not going to be out there opening Fidelity accounts or cash management accounts at Merrill Lynch," said Heather Rosenkoetter, an analyst with Friedman, Billings, Ramsey & Co. in Arlington, Va. Targeting the working-class market "really is a niche Commercial Federal should be focusing on."
Commercial Federal still makes home loans, but not to the high-end customer. Average home loans for Commercial Federal are $132,000 in Denver and $119,000 in Kansas City, Mo.
Small-business lending represents a new source of revenue for Commercial Federal. In addition to more revenue growth, Mr. Fitzgerald said, offering such lending could actually attract more individuals to his company. Mr. Fitzgerald hopes small-business operators will bring their personal banking business to Commercial Federal if he lends to their fledgling companies.
A lot of what Mr. Fitzgerald is proposing has yet to be tested. Will it work? Mr. Fitzgerald thinks so.
He weathered the storm of the 1980s when many of his competitors tanked. Commercial Federal still has a lawsuit pending against the government.
The supervisory goodwill lawsuit stems from a series of acquisitions completed in the 1980s and the actions it was required to make following the passage of the savings and loan bailout. While Commercial Federal has not estimated the damages, the goodwill that was written off was nearly $170 million.