As retail chief of Bank United Corp., Ron Koben has ambitions that are big even for a Texan.

"My vision is for Bank United to become the undisputed dominant force in Texas retail banking," he says.

With profits shrinking in its traditional home loan business, the $11 billion-asset Houston thrift, like others around the nation, is reinventing itself as a consumer bank.

Mortgage financier Lewis S. Ranieri cobbled Bank United from a handful of failed thrifts in the late 1980s, then built it into one of the nation's top mortgage lenders. But 10 months ago, the thrift embarked on a new course after going public with a $199.5 million stock issue.

Bank United has sold off its extensive retail mortgage origination business outside Texas. In the 12 months ended March 31, Bank United decreased its single-family mortgage investments by $587 million, while adding $741 million of consumer and commercial loans.

Investors apparently have embraced the strategy. Bank United's stock had soared to $35.50 by noon Wednesday, from $20 last August.

Even so, Mr. Koben, 39, faces a daunting task, competing in Texas with some of the nation's savviest banks: NationsBank Corp., Bank One Corp., BankAmerica Corp., Wells Fargo & Co., and Chase Manhattan Corp.

In Houston, top-ranked Texas Commerce, which is owned by Chase, had almost 23% of deposits, compared with Bank United's 9% as of June 1996, according to Sheshunoff Information Services Inc., Austin.

In Dallas, NationsBank had 39% to Bank United's 3%. Bank United ranked fourth and sixth by deposit share in Houston and in Dallas, respectively.

But Mr. Koben says he isn't fazed.

Before he became a banker, Mr. Koben was a marketing specialist at Foley's Department Stores in Houston. He's betting that what he learned there about the minutiae of consumer behavior will help attract Texans to Bank United.

The thrift's newest branch, which sits across from the University of Texas in Austin, is an example of his thinking.

The branch was supposed to be like any other. But one look at the architect's drawings convinced Mr. Koben that with college kids the thrift needed another approach.

They're "awake 24 hours a day, they're on foot, they've all got stuff in their hands," Mr. Koben says, rattling off the ways in which college students differ from the typical bank customer.

Bank United built book racks near the ATMs, which are in front of the branch, readily accessible for those 2 a.m. taco runs.

Instead of shag carpet, there's buffed concrete on the floor. The walls are plywood. And the furniture is sheet metal, not mahogany.

"If I was at U.T.," says Mr. Koben, who did go to college there, "that's where I'd like to bank."

But hip-looking branches likely aren't enough to pry away most Texans from the grip of big banks.

"People just don't move," even if they're fed up with rampant fees and impersonal service, says Bill Strunk, chairman of Strunk & Associates, Houston. "It's called inertia."

Inertia is hard to fight, Mr. Koben admits.

"These big national carpetbagger banks-I think they wake up every morning and thank God that their customer base suffers from inertia and confusion," he grumbles.

But Bank United's offer of free checking until the year 2000, first made in 1995, is working, he says. Checking accounts have gone from 64,942 in 1994 to 149,889 accounts in the quarter ended March 31.

To motivate customers to switch, Bank United also appeals to state pride. When Wells Fargo acquired First Interstate, Bank United's "Top 10 Reasons to Jump Off the Stagecoach" ads underlined that Wells is Californian.

Reason No. 5: "'Cool, dude!' is just not as friendly as 'Howdy, y'all!'"

Reason No. 9: "For people who dress like cowboys, they're not even from Texas."

In a dig at Wells' many fees, the ad concluded, "You won't have to pay to call California to see what your balance is in Texas."

Just last month, the Texas pot got richer, with the state Legislature voting to end its ban on home equity loans. Voters are expected to follow suit in a November referendum.

That means Texans will be able to use their home equity to pay off credit cards and to finance autos and college tuitions, like Americans everywhere else.

Bank United's chief executive officer, Barry C. Burkholder estimated that homeowners will borrow against $8.5 billion of the $124 billion of home equity they hold. (Others have estimated that available Texas home equity range could be as much as $200 billion.)

Smith Barney analyst Thomas O'Donnell reckons Bank United could add between $1 billion and $3 billion in home equity loans by 2000.

Bank United also is using its bread-and-butter home loan business to build the fledgling retail lines. It has changed the way it makes home loans, eliminating commissions to its mortgage sales force in Texas, and making the loans out of its retail branches rather than from separate mortgage offices.

"Our existing brick-and-mortar operations in Texas have potential borrowers coming in and out of them all day," Mr. Burkholder says. "That was virtually untapped before."

Consumers get lower rates, and Bank United gets the chance to sell homeowners other products, Mr. Koben adds.

Whereas mortgage bankers treat a home loan as a one-shot transaction, he says, "We go back and start to work on the relationship: 'Who are these people? What else do they need? Where are they at this point in their lives?'"

Chances are good that Bank United won't beat the big banks in Texas retailing. But its drive for checking accounts and consumer loans will make it a fatter prize for an acquisitive competitor, analysts say.

As the largest independent bank in Texas, Bank United would be a good catch for one of the big banks already in Texas or one looking to enter the state, says Bruce Harting of Lehman Brothers.

He said he expects Bank United to sell in a couple of years when the tax advantages related to its purchase from Resolution Trust Corp. run out.

Mr. Koben dismisses talk of being acquired.

"I've been here eight years," he says, "and since my second day on the job I've been told by people in the industry that this institution might be for sale."

Bank United wants to bulk up itself, particularly in blue-collar areas of Houston and Dallas, he says. Bank United would prefer to buy a bank rather than a thrift, he adds.

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