If Thomas Ricketts sounds a little cocky when he says his thrift, Standard Federal Bancorp., will be able to grow quickly in Chicago, that's because he believes no bank has truly dominated the Second City.

Through the acquisition of Chicago's $1.9 billion-asset Bell Bancorp, Troy, Mich.-based Standard Federal will become the latest Midwest player to try its luck here.

With 7.7 million people, the Chicago market is certainly attractive.

And in spite of the presence of formidable national and international competitors - First Chicago NBD Corp., ABN Amro North America, Bank of Montreal (which operates Harris Bankcorp), BankAmerica Corp., and Citicorp - Mr. Ricketts believes a midsize thrift like his can be an aggressive home lender.

"Chicago has not really had the consolidation Michigan and other states have had," Mr. Ricketts said. "It's a big, fragmented city."

There are about 300 banks and 80 thrifts in Chicago. There is a plethora of financial institutions partly because Illinois was a unit banking state until 1976, observers say.

First Chicago has the largest market share of deposits, with 18%, according to SNL Securities. ABN Amro has just under 11%, and Harris has 6.5%.

If those numbers look like there's room to move in Chicago, consider that some of the regional players in the Midwest, Firstar Corp., First of America Bank Corp., Old Kent Financial Corp., Banc One Corp., Comerica Inc., and First Bank System Inc., together hold less than 7% of the total deposits there.

"I think the large regionals have an opportunity to consolidate in a market that's not consolidated," said Linda Stromberg, an analyst with M.R. Beal & Co.

However, not all of these players will survive, she said. "What you have to do in any market is be No. 1, No. 2, or No. 3. Now the larger ones are looking at the larger acquisitions."

Columbus, Ohio-based Banc One is No. 18 in the market, with $1.3 billion in deposits, according to SNL Securities. Many speculate that Banc One will soon leave, especially since the $88 billion-asset bank holding company regularly claims it wants to be among the top three banks in any market it serves.

But Stan Calderon, chairman and chief executive of Bank One Chicago, insisted his company won't leave Illinois. Banc One will grow its market share in Chicago through its core businesses and will acquire when the price is right, he said.

Not surprisingly, his competitors disagreed. Thomas Heagy, vice chairman of ABN Amro's LaSalle National Bank, said Banc One is a "dead duck" in Chicago.

Mr. Heagy believes Banc One and other regional bank companies will eventually drop out of the market, and LaSalle will pick up the pieces.

"I think you could make the argument, given the apparent high prices, that the premium you would get for selling a bank is greater than the returns you would get from future acquisitions," said Ben Crabtree, an analyst with Dain Bosworth Inc.

The price of potential acquisitions has been a big problem, Mr. Crabtree said. In deals done over the past few years, banks have sold for two to three times book value. These pricey acquisitions have been dilutive, he added.

Standard Federal, on the other hand, is purchasing Bell for $354 million in cash, or 1.2 times book. According to Michael Moran, an analyst with Roney & Co., it makes sense for Michigan-based institutions to expand from a heavily consolidated market into Illinois.

Most of the big regionals that have bought into the Chicago market are looking to establish a base from which to do further acquiring. That was the impetus behind Firstar of Milwaukee's purchase of $1.8 billion-asset First Colonial Bankshares last January. But the deal has been something of a disappointment, Mr. Crabtree said, as Firstar experienced a number of unexpected expenses, such as a higher number of severance packages than planned.

First Bank of Minneapolis bought Boulevard Bancorp in September 1993. The deal gave it nine branches with less than $1 billion in deposits and less than a 1% market share. Though its small Illinois presence may be the last thing on the minds of First Bank executives who are focusing on their bid for First Interstate Bancorp, some analysts believe they'll soon have to either fish or cut bait.

"If they're not able to leverage that into a significant presence in the next year, I think they would say, let's sell it," Mr. Crabtree said.

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