With 22 acquisitions under their belts since 1990, the managers of Sky Financial Group, Bowling Green, Ohio, never waited long for a deal.
But 1998 set a new standard for the $4.8 billion-asset company, formed in October through a merger between Citizens Bancshares of Salineville, Ohio, and Mid Am Inc. of Bowling Green.
Even before the merger deal was inked, Sky's management announced it had a deal to buy $600 million-asset Ohio Bank in Findlay. In December, the company unveiled two more acquisitions that would push Sky to $7.2 billion of assets.
In less than a year, Sky intends to grow from super community bank status to a strong regional contender that rivals Ohio neighbors FirstMerit Corp. in Akron, Huntington Bancshares in Columbus, and Fifth Third Bancorp in Cincinnati.
"I've got a lot of confidence in these guys," said Kenneth Puglisi, a bank analyst at Sandler O'Neill in New York. "They're doing a lot to enhance their franchise."
Mergers of equals can be tricky because there is no larger player calling the shots during the integration process. Analysts said, however, that the Citizens/Mid Am marriage had gone smoothly because the organizations complemented one another.
While both were based in Ohio, Mid Am focused on generating fee income and serving customers in the northwest part of the state. Citizens, meanwhile, was known for containing costs and sticking to markets in eastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania.
Since the companies joined in October, Sky has implemented a Citizens- style cost-cutting program by eliminating 260 jobs and consolidating the companies' back-room operations. Now Sky is integrating Mid Am's product line into the former Citizens branches, said Marty E. Adams president and chief operating officer at Sky.
"What is 'Citizens' and what is 'Mid Am' no longer exists," he said. "We are a new company."
At the same time, Sky also has been digesting Ohio Bank, which the company purchased in November. Ohio Bank, a closely held company based about 30 minutes south of Sky's headquarters, has bolstered Sky's presence in the western part of the state.
"It was a natural extension of our market," Mr. Adams said.
Sky ended 1998 by announcing it would pay $434 million to acquire First Western Bancorp of New Castle, Pa., and $59 million to buy Wood Bancorp of Bowling Green. Both deals are set to close by midyear 1999.
The First Western and Wood deals have met mixed reviews. Mr. Puglisi of Sandler O'Neill said the latest acquisitions would be a good fit with Sky's existing operations.
But Brock Vandervliet of Keefe, Bruyette & Woods was critical of the First Western deal.
"They're going to have to do some work with First Western's balance sheet," he said, noting that more than half of the Pennsylvania company's earning assets are invested in securities. Still, that provides an opportunity for Sky to pick up small-business and other credit-needy customers in the area.
"As long as management can instill a sales focus, they can steal some market share," Mr. Vandervliet said.
Investors also seem wary of the First Western and Wood deals. Since they were announced in mid December, Sky's stock price has been off by as much as 16%.
Despite the criticism, Mr. Adams said Sky is focusing on integrating its pending acquisitions and plans to take a six-month hiatus from deal-making.
"The pace has been hectic," he admitted. "But we would not have started if we didn't think we could complete the deals."
Mr. Adams predicted that a few consecutive quarters of solid earnings would silence any of Sky's critics. Mr. Vandervliet of Keefe, Bruyette & Woods has estimated the company's earnings will grow by 30% in 1999 and an additional 15% in 2000.
For the long-term, analysts were divided as to whether Sky would remain an acquirer or sell out to a company looking for a strong foothold in Ohio.
Mr. Adams said the company planned to keep growing through acquisition and stay fixed on improving Sky's fee income.
"We want to be one of the most profitable banking companies," he said.