Ask a bank chief executive these days if his company can go it alone against the forces of consolidation, and you'll get the stock answer:

Yes, the bank can remain independent, assuming financial performance remains strong. And of course, any offer too good to refuse will be entertained.

Ask Stanley J. Bradshaw of Roosevelt Financial Group Inc. in St. Louis, and you get the same answer. But he delivers it more matter-of- factly than most, and without a trace of sentimentality.

You see no golden parachutes. You do not see management contracts. And more importantly, you do not see poison pills, said the chief executive of the $9 billion-asset thrift. We think that capital will flow to its highest return. And if our return on capital is so low because of our inability to perform, it's going to flow away from us. And that will translate into a lower stock price, and there's going to be a change of control.

I think he really believes it, said Ben B. Crabtree, a Dain Bosworth Inc. analyst in Minneapolis. I have never in my life seen . . . such a shareholder-oriented company.

Roosevelt's earnings per share growth and returns on equity - 18% for the third quarter of last year, for example - have outpaced its commercial bank competitors in Missouri. The bank has also been an aggressive acquirer in the early 1990s, quadrupling in size between 1991 and yearend 1994.

The bank did surprise investors last year when it took an $18 million charge against first-quarter earnings after delinquencies and losses rose in part of the mortgage-backed securities portfolio. But analysts said the hit was an aberration and credit Mr. Bradshaw with acting quickly to put the problem behind. They also note that Roosevelt has a strong track record in managing interest rate risk and maintaining credit quality.

Despite that reputation and record, executives say Roosevelt is saddled with the label thrift, which partly explains why its price-to- earnings multiple lags behind those of commercial banks.

We continue to trade almost three full multiples down from our competitors, said Mr. Bradshaw. That has inhibited Roosevelt's ability to make acquisitions in the last year, he acknowledged.

But Mr. Bradshaw, who is 38 years old, insists the thrift has the right stuff to be a tough competitor while withstanding the onslaught of change. In the last year, he and the management team have begun to take steps to make Roosevelt look more like a commercial retail bank.

The approach isn't unique. Other thrifts, like TCF Financial, Minneapolis, and Charter One Financial Inc., Cleveland, have already gone a long way toward expanding their consumer business by offering a broad range of products and services not typical of a traditional thrift.

Analysts say that emulating retail banks is essential for thrifts. It's a must-do strategy, said Kay C. Lister, an analyst with Keefe, Bruyette & Woods Inc., New York. It's a strategy for survival.

Mr. Crabtree said that if executed successfully, the approach can work. He noted that TCF, an early and successful adherent to the look-like- a-bank approach, was rewarded with a price-to-earnings multiple that rivals that of a commercial bank.

That's what Roosevelt wants, too. But analysts say that investors will be expecting results.

I think there is some impatience among investors, said Ms. Lister. And Mr. Crabtree said, There are some somewhat disappointed investors out there that are kind of watching and waiting to see whether, or how fast, the management can pull off this transition, and get a good earnings momentum and a higher stock price.

At Roosevelt, the transition is called pursuing retail banking excellence. It involves cross-selling more products to its existing customer base and building market share among noncustomers with self- service banking options. The success of both initiatives will hinge on execution, the bank said.

One key will be hiring employees who are able to sell. Another, Mr. Bradshaw said, was the hiring last year of Anat Bird, a prominent industry consultant who coined the term super community bank, and has been a frequent contributor to American Banker.

Ms. Bird, chief operating officer, is charged with bringing a version of super community banking to Roosevelt. The term refers to banks that give affiliates a great deal of autonomy while keeping costs down by centralizing back-office tasks like data processing.

Unlike some commercial banks that subscribe to the super community model by operating multiple affiliates with separate boards of directors, Roosevelt will continue to operate as a single institution. But management is now working to make branch managers more like entrepreneurs who must write - and be accountable for - an ambitious business plan. They are also given flexibility on local pricing and marketing efforts. Branches will also have the support of advisory boards.

The approach, known as managing local markets, includes minimum performance standards for branch managers, such as selling a predetermined number of checking accounts each week.

Branch employees, from the manager down to the tellers, will also be rewarded for exceeding those minimum standards.

Our branch managers can get 40% incentive compensation, said Ms. Bird.

Each branch will also receive direction and support from the holding company. For example, the bank is now seeking to cross-sell mortgage customers a package of bank products. Ms. Bird calls it a Happy Meal, a reference to the burger, fries, drink, and toy McDonald's markets to children.

Mortgage customers who do four things - move their checking account to Roosevelt, sign up for a direct debit of their monthly payment, get overdraft protection, and apply for an annuity - receive a more attractive interest rate.

We found that we would be better off selling those packages, and charging less for the mortgage, than if we sold the mortgage alone, said Ms. Bird. We started it on the mortgage side because it is a commoditized product, so therefore it is not intensely profitable. But it still very important to us. The way to make it profitable is to create a value package around it.

Roosevelt said the strategy has shown early signs of success. The percentage of new mortgage customers who immediately bought additional bank products grew to 30% in the third quarter of last year, up from less than 5% a year earlier. Overall mortgage loan production increased to $185 million from $88 million during the period. And the number of new checking accounts opened in the first nine months of 1995 was more than double year- earlier results.

Gary W. Douglass, executive vice president and chief financial officer, said such cross-selling is critical because the bank now has only about an average of 1.5 relationships with each of its 275,000 households. The goal is to get to an average of two relationships by the end of the year and, eventually, build to four or five accounts per household.

Executives say they can increase household profitability without the large costs associated with acquiring new customers. And the deeper the relationship, the less likely it is that the customer will leave for another bank.

The biggest payoffs are yet to come, said Mr. Douglass. You have some base profit that accrues every year. But each year as you go, you get profits from increased balances, you get profit from increased number of accounts, and you have decreased operating costs.

Ms. Bird noted that Roosevelt's 78 branches average $60 million of retail deposits, compared with a statewide average of $33 million. The large branches are one reason the bank's efficiency ratio is so lean - 39.89% for the first nine months of last year - and make the economics of cross-selling even more attractive.

Our profit margins are wider, she said. Or, conversely, we can afford to open more accounts that would be losers for other people. For us they are not losers.

Ms. Bird noted another benefit of cross-selling a prepackaged set of products. If your sales force is not very good at selling - and it will take us some time to transform our sales force - then it's much easier to give them a Happy Meal, said Ms. Bird.

Central to Roosevelt's execution strategy is building a stronger sales force. The bank has retained Talent Plus, a consulting firm that helps identify people with natural sales ability. The company does not typically work with banks but has helped high-profile companies like Disney, Ritz-Carlton, and American Airlines.

We're finding, in a lot of cases, it's easy to hire a salesperson and train them to be a banker than to train a banker to be a salesperson, said Mr. Douglass. We feel very comfortable that (Talent Plus has) helped us put the right people in the right spot.

The developing sales staff will also be expected to produce results. Will you lose your job if you don't perform? Absolutely. I will lose my job if we don't perform. None of us has a contract, said Ms. Bird. The management had the stomach to either get the results or change the work force. That's something that's very unusual.

Another component of Roosevelt's retail strategy is offering more self-service banking options, including the 24-hour call center and additional off-premises automated teller machines. The bank is now promoting a telephone-based, bank-from-home bill payment service.

Roosevelt is taking a cautious approach on PC banking, however. We still have rotary dials in our marketplace, said Ms. Bird. So let's wait until they get touch-tone, O.K.?

Together, these initiatives are designed to generate earnings growth between 10% to 20% and returns on equity in the 15% to 20% range. If we can continue to . . . do this in the next five years the way we've done it before, there is probably a good chance that our stock will stay so expensive that we're not a part of consolidation other than as an acquirer, said Mr. Bradshaw. And if we can't meet that challenge, then we don't deserve to stay independent.

Will Roosevelt meet the challenge? To Mr. Bradshaw, the question will be answered by how well the bank the bank executes it's strategy, and by a faith in the free market.

We are not sure at this point in time if we are on a 10-year playout, or a ten month playout, he said. And we don't think it has any implications for what you do day in and day out.

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