Omaha-based Commercial Federal Corp. is on the hunt for acquisitions, according to chairman and chief executive officer William A. Fitzgerald.

In a recent interview, Mr. Fitzgerald said Commercial Federal could buy a company with as much as $3 billion of assets.

The $8.9 billion-asset thrift's largest deal to date is its pending acquisition of $1.6 billion-asset First Colorado Bancorp. That purchase is expected to close in September.

After completing the First Colorado deal and another one for $1.5 billion-asset Amerus Bank, Des Moines, Commercial Federal would have about $12 billion of assets and rank as the eighth-largest thrift in the nation.

Mr. Fitzgerald said he would not do a deal "today" because his company needs to wrap up its pending acquisitions. However, Commercial Federal could begin negotiating for a purchase immediately, he said, because "these things can take months."

Commercial Federal has been on an acquisition tear recently. If the First Colorado and Amerus deals go through, its size will be double what it was just two years ago.

"Obviously, they're building an attractive franchise," said analyst David E. Mudd of Howe Barnes Investments Inc. "But they're going to have a challenge integrating the companies. We'll find out over the next year."

Commercial Federal will continue to look for targets in the eight states where it has a presence or would have one once its pending deals close. These are: Arizona, Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, and Oklahoma.

There are no obvious buyout candidates of the appropriate size in that territory. But Mr. Fitzgerald told investors at a recent conference that his company does not need an acquisition for profit growth. "All goals are set based only on the network we have today," he said. "We do not build (acquisitions) into the business plan."

Earnings expansion would come from Commercial Federal's efforts to become more like a commercial bank, he said. The thrift has been building its consumer and commercial fee-income operations. Business banking, in particular, will contribute mightily to the bottom line this year, he said.

Commercial Federal bought Liberty Financial Corp. of Des Moines in February. Mr. Fitzgerald said he hopes to offer all of Liberty's business banking products in Commercial Federal's 150 branches within 12 months.

As for Commercial Federal's own independence, Mr. Fitzgerald said his company would buy rather than sell. However, he said the thrift's long-term goal is to earn at least 15% on equity and to maintain profitable growth. If it cannot do that, he said, it should sell.

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