An uncertain market for bank stocks is not deterring a Silicon Valley start-up from going public right out of the gate.

Though most established privately held banks have been skittish about public offerings, Bridge Bank of Silicon Valley began selling its stock on Feb. 1 - at least two months before it is scheduled to open for business. The Santa Clara, Calif., bank is betting that investors will recognize the growth opportunities for a start-up in a booming market where few locally owned banks remain.

"In the last 20 years in Silicon Valley, the number of independent banks has gone down from 12 to three," said Daniel P. Myers, president and chief executive officer of Bridge and a longtime banker in Northern California. "Meanwhile, the available pool of deposits has increased more than 60%. The pool of deposits in the city of Santa Clara alone has increased 150%."

Bridge's strategy of raising capital through a stock offering is unusual these days. Paul Geary, a senior editor at Hoovers International, a Web information company that tracks initial public offerings, said that though bank stocks in general are back in vogue the market for bank initial public offerings has all but dried up in the last year.

Of the roughly 400 IPOs completed from 1996 to 1999, about 100 were issued by banks, Mr. Geary said. Last year banks issued eight of the 117 IPOs completed.

"I think that's because the market is really soft for banks," Mr. Geary said. "The large-bank stocks have done well, but it's been a mixed bag for small banks."

Bridge collected $1.57 million from its directors and local supporters before the IPO, and it hopes to raise an additional $15 million from the public offering, which lasts until May. Bridge, which is not using an investment underwriter, is offering up to 3.4 million shares of common stock at $5 per share and so far has raised $1 million, with commitments for $7 million more, according to Mr. Myers.

All money collected is being put in escrow until Bridge raises $15 million. At that point, pending regulatory approval, the investors would be issued stock, and the shares would begin trading over the counter.

The bank plans to target small businesses throughout Silicon Valley, particularly those owned by Asian-Americans. Mr. Myers said it would be trying to hire bankers who speak Japanese, Korean, and other Asian languages.

"The ethnicity of Silicon Valley has changed dramatically over the last 10 years," he said, as more Asian-Americans move into the region and start businesses.

Still, the competition is likely to be fierce.

Steve Didion, director of bank research for Hoefer & Arnett in San Francisco, said a number of larger banks known for their service to Asian-Americans have branches in Silicon Valley. Moreover, the few other locally based banks left in Silicon Valley, including the $24.5 million-asset Asiana Bank, which opened just last month in nearby Sunnyvale, could still give Bridge a run for its money, he said.

Bridge "will be competing with other banks like San Jose National and Heritage Bank of Commerce out of San Jose, so I don't think there's a great lack of competition from other community banks," Mr. Didion said. "Also, the Bank of Santa Clara," which was recently bought by Greater Bay Bancorp of Palo Alto, "has kept its name, and a lot of its customers don't even know that Greater Bay owns it."

Mr. Myers said that Bridge's organizers aren't daunted by the potential competition. The bank already has the support of a number of people in the local business community, he said.

"A group of 32 Santa Clara business owners actually approached us and said that they wanted to contribute," Mr. Myers said, and they invested about $1 million last summer in return for board representation.

"Many of them are former Bank of Santa Clara investors," and their participation in Bridge's IPO "was based on their desire to have a bank of their own again in Santa Clara," he said.

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