Those saying that the thrift industry is dying forgot to tell Steven M. Schooley.
He opened a new federal savings bank last week in Broken Arrow, Okla.
"There was no real master plan for going in this direction," said Mr. Schooley, chief executive of Federal BankCentre, with $2.4 million of assets. "The real estate market is good here, so we decided to focus on that."
His thrift is one of a dozen or so that are opening this year, despite congressional proposals to merge the federal thrift charter out of existence, likely by the end of the decade.
After drying up in the early 1990s in the wake of the savings and loan debacle, federal thrift charters have staged a comeback in the last three years. The Office of Thrift Supervision has granted 32 new thrift charters in that time, more than twice the number of the previous three years.
"We're dealing with a different breed of cat here," said Robert R. Rader, president of BanXsource Inc., a Marietta, Ga., consulting firm. "I'm working with five different groups forming savings banks, and they all feel like there's no advantage to creating yet another commercial bank."
Mr. Rader said he is advising two groups in Florida, two in Georgia, and one in South Carolina.
The negative perceptions of savings and loans may still exist, but since regulators no longer require them to include "savings bank" in their names, most customers don't know the difference, organizers said.
"We felt there was still some stigma out there regarding the S&L industry, and we didn't want to be associated with it," said J. Bruce Loftin, executive vice president of Community Bank of Fayetteville, Ark., which opened in September. "But we had seen several S&Ls change their name and be quite successful. Everybody views us as a bank."
The executives of the new thrifts said they sought several of the advantages that a federal thrift charter brings, such as the right to sell insurance and securities, as well as the ability to branch anywhere regardless of state laws.
For instance, the $31 million-asset Central Valley Bank of Ottumwa, Iowa, which opened about 18 months ago, chose a thrift charter primarily to circumvent the state's restrictive branching laws, which allow a commercial bank to branch only into neighboring counties.
With the federal thrift charter in hand, Central Valley said it intends to expand aggressively in the coming years.
Others said focusing on a niche, such as home lending, is the guarantor of success for new institutions.
"I've seen guys lose all their hair trying to compete with everybody else," said Mr. Rader of BanXsource. "Forget about them. Let the Hugh McColls fight against each other, and all you have to be is the local savings bank."
The thrift application process is also considered to be less burdensome than that for commercial bank charters, and more important, the capital requirements are lower - on average by about 30%, some said. Most states require a minimum of about $2 million for new thrifts.
"For certain investment groups who don't have the ability to raise $5 million, right now you can get a thrift charter for about $2.5 million," said Frank C. Bonaventure, a partner with Ober, Kaler, Grimes & Shriver in Baltimore, which is advising a thrift start-up group in the area.
"There's some uncertainty as to what these animals will look like once the legislation gets passed, but they'll probably get grandfathered," he declared.
Carolina Savings Bank of Greensboro, N.C., which claims to be the state's first start-up savings bank, plans to open early next year with about $6 million of capital, well above what's necessary.
"We've seen the good, the bad, and the ugly," said H.B. "Buck" McMillan, Jr., chief executive of Carolina Savings. "We're just trying to do the good."