Pan American Bank hopes the rising tide of Spanish- speaking immigrants to California will lift it to success.

The Northern California bank, resurrected after a troubled beginning, has opened its first Southern California office in a bid to serve the region's fast-growing immigrant population.

The San Mateo bank, with $160 million in assets, failed in its previous incarnation in 1992. A group of Hispanic businesspeople bought its remains from the Resolution Trust Corp.

Chief executive Lawrence J. Grill says demographics are on the bank's side. His new full-service office has bilingual materials, signs, and tellers.

"In the past, for many Hispanics, going to the bank was an uncomfortable experience," Mr. Grill said. "Hispanic customers can come into our bank and feel comfortable. We think that if we can begin to develop these relationships, word of mouth will help them continue to grow."

About 20% of California's 30 million residents are Hispanic. Immigration from Mexico and Central America has increased Hispanics' numbers statewide, especially in Southern California.

The bank purchased the San Fernando Valley branch from the Resolution Trust Corp. in late 1994. The building, previously owned by Western Federal Savings, was damaged by the Northridge earthquake that struck earlier that year.

Mr. Grill said the restored building boosts the bank's overall operation and is an integral part of the rebirth of its Panorama City community.

Rebirth has been a key theme for Pan American in the 1990s. In 1991, several Latino organizations lobbied the Bush administration to keep the struggling bank independent, but regulators seized it.

The Resolution Trust Corp. controlled it until April 1994, when a group of established, predominantly Hispanic-American investors bought it for $11.4 million.

In addition to its Southern California office, Pan American has branches in Burlingame, San Mateo, San Carlos, and San Francisco.

Despite its commitment to serving Hispanics, Pan America has had difficulty making itself known to the Latino community. Unlike its competitors, it doesn't have the money to spend on targeted advertising.

To increase name recognition, Mr. Grill and his staff have begun approaching Hispanic groups and gatherings. The bank promotes bilingualism among its employees, more than 40% of whom are Hispanic.

"It's difficult to go out and market a bank like this. It takes word of mouth," Mr. Grill said. "I think everybody in California wants to get into this market. But we know others have spent a tremendous amount of money and not been successful, so we've tried different things."

Pan American's strategy reflects its interest in attracting Hispanics to the banking world. The bank has enlarged its initial focus to include finance cars and auto insurance premiums.

"Originally the institution was set up for mortgage banking, but a move has been made since then to serve underserved consumer credit markets," Mr. Grill said. "We're trying to give the Hispanic community a chance to break into the credit world.

"We're trying to reach those consumers who never, ever in a million years would qualify at an 'A' lender," he added.

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