A Pennsylvania community bank is opening a unit specifically to target the Philadelphia area's growing Asian population.

National Penn Bank, Boyertown, will operate National Asian Bank as an independent division under National Penn's bank charter. The unit, scheduled to open June 15, will be in Elkins Park, a Philadelphia suburb.

Four years ago National Penn hired a staff to target Asian communities around the city, said Wayne R. Weidner, president and chief executive officer of the $1.6 billion-asset bank. But simply having staff members fluent in the language proved insufficient, he said.

"We saw a niche for us and decided the best way to accommodate the market was through a separate division," Mr. Weidner said.

As an independent division, National Asian will have its own president and other officers. National Penn will still be responsible for back-office processing and developing a credit policy.

The company has tapped Edward E. Shin to lead the new unit. Mr. Shin, a former senior loan officer at Chase Manhattan Bank in Orange, Calif., previously worked for Chestnut Hill National Bank, another division of National Penn.

National Penn has estimated that more than 300,000 Asian-Americans live in the Philadelphia metropolitan area. And there are at least 3,000 Asian- owned businesses.

National Asian is not the only Philadelphia-area bank targeting Asian- American people, however.

First Commercial Bank of Philadelphia, a nine-year-old institution based in the city's Chinatown, has grown to $82 million of assets, from $33 million in 1992, by targeting Asian-Americans. Its president and CEO, James R. Russell, said National Asian should expect a fight.

"The population is growing, but whether or not there is enough business out there for newcomers remains to be seen," Mr. Russell said. "We have developed strong relationships in the Asian communities, and we believe those relationships will only continue to grow."

Mr. Weidner said his bank is establishing its own ties to the community, in part by forming an advisory board of community leaders.

"We know we are not going to be the only player, but we feel we can compete," he said.

Nationally, community banks are succeeding in targeting ethnic groups such as Asian-Americans or Latinos, according to Cassandra Toroian, research analyst at Ryan, Beck & Co., Livingston, N.J.

"Banks are realizing there are sectors of the population that have been traditionally overlooked," Ms. Toroian said. "There is a lot of money to be made in these communities."

Mr. Weidner said National Penn is exploring the creation of other divisions to target niche groups.

"There are pockets of great business opportunities out there," he said. "We just have to develop ways to attract them."

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