Once-acquisitive Westamerica Bancorp, which has come up empty-handed lately in its attempts to buy small banks, intends to try the start-up route in northern California to improve revenue growth.

David L. Payne, chairman and chief executive officer of San Raphael, Calif.-based Westamerica, said the $3.9 billion-asset company plans to open as many as five branches and/or loan production offices this year in markets where it failed to find merger partners in the last two years.

Westamerica, which operates 86 branches in northern and central California, is eyeing the cities of Emeryville, Richmond, Hayward, Fremont, and Stockton, Mr. Payne said. It recently opened a branch in Livermore, near Oakland.

"This is a significant commitment for us," Mr. Payne said. "We haven't done something like this in years."

He said the branches would average roughly 2,200 square feet in size and cost $125,000 to $175,000 to open.

Westamerica bought six banks from 1992 to 1997, but its reputation has scared off more than one prospective seller in the last couple of years.

The company is notorious for quickly slashing costs by 43% to 85% at its acquired banks - including ousting management.

A report issued last summer by Hoefer & Arnett, a San Francisco investment bank, quoted a California banker as saying that Mr. Payne would have to "pry the keys from my dead hands" to purchase his bank.

The dry spell has stifled Westamerica's growth. Though its returns on assets and equity are among the strongest in the industry, it has struggled to increase revenues - they were $174.4 million last year, a $600,000 drop from 1998.

Acquisitions would add more to Westamerica's bottom line than branch openings would, but analysts say they are encouraged by Mr. Payne's latest initiative.

"He has to do something for growth; he can't sit still," said Joseph K. Morford 3d, an analyst at Dain Rauscher Wessels in San Francisco.

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