CHATHAM, N.J. - No banker is safe in the Garden State.

Everyone is looking over their shoulders at larger competitors who may eat them for lunch.

But Robert Cox, chief executive officer and president of $5.5 billion- asset Summit Bancorp., isn't running scared. Lunch is on his agenda, but he doesn't intend to be the meal.

He's eyeing and acquiring smaller competitors including what became one of New Jersey's biggest deals last year, a $91 million purchase of $1 billion-asset Crestmont Financial Corp.

But acquisitions alone won't insure Summit's survival. Mr. Cox is bringing this bank into the 21st century, unleashing onto the market a sales culture that never before existed inside Summit, but one that is second nature to his many nonbank competitors.

In this oversaturated state, banks compete fiercely. Institutions are laying off hundreds to put the squeeze on inefficiency.

Workers that manage to keep their jobs are being transformed from traditional sedentary branch employees into salespeople.

Competition is so stiff, executives consistently complain that the bank next door is loosening requirements on loan structures even though the nonperforming asset problems of the 1980s haven't had time to fade from memory.

Since he took over as Summit's chief executive a year ago, Mr. Cox has see a dozen acquisitions take place in New Jersey. That's the seventh most in the country, according to SNL Securities, Charlottesville, Va.

Can New Jersey's fourth-largest bank survive in such a rough-and-tumble market?

It's a question worth asking because Summit is part of a growing number of institutions entering the super community bank category.

Community bankers rely on their customer relationships to compete, while superregionals invest in the latest technology and acquire smaller competitors. The 'super community bank lives somewhere between the two.

Mr. Cox is betting that Summit will survive as long as it doesn't lose touch with its roots.

When he joined the bank in its first year, 1974, it had $225 million of assets. But Mr. Cox knows he must increase asset size to compete.

No New Jersey-based bank is safe from take over mania. Even First Fidelity Bancorp. of Lawrenceville, the state's largest bank, has watched its stock price react to rumors of a takeover by NationsBank Corp. or BankAmerica Corp.

Since Summit possesses a large deposit share in some of New Jersey's fastest growing counties, analysts say executives at money-centers or regionals, particularly in neighboring Pennsylvania, are likely salivating over this profitable morsel and its attractive distribution network.

Summit has the seventh-largest market share in New Jersey with 91 offices in 11 counties. It is No. 1 in Union County with 14.5%, according to Mary Quinn, an analyst at Keefe, Bruyette & Woods Inc.

"Summit's stronghold is kind of in the midsection of the state. They are attractive counties," she says.

"Union County, for example, where they have the biggest share, is important because it's one of the state's more populated counties."

For the short run, Summit will remain independent, analysts say. So, the bank thrives on the perception that it's a takeover target.

"We are written about as an attractive acquisition candidate," says Mr. Cox with a grin. "I take that as a compliment. I hope it helps our stock price."

Although Elizabeth Summers, an analyst at Ryan, Beck & Co., says Summit's "valuation is relatively high," and that its shares "generally have some takeover premium in them," the bank's stock price is currently trading $2 below its 12-month high of $21.71.

While Mr. Cox insists there is no current takeover premium in Summit's stock price - as much as he'd like to see one - Ms. Quinn says "there aren't too many banks out there that could afford Summit."

Mr. Cox won't say if his plans include selling the bank some time in the future. However, he admits that Summit's senior managers and directors would have to look closely at any offer that came along. They "are fully aware of their fiduciary responsibilities," he says.

And, he refuses to comment as to whether he has recently received any unsolicited offers or had any conversations about a sale of Summit that he initiated himself.

In the meantime, he keeps busy looking for his own acquisition targets.

He admits disappointment in some local community banks that "remain fiercely independent." But that hasn't kept him from making other deals.

In September, Mr. Cox agreed to the in-market purchase of Crestmont. The deal for the Edison-based thrift brought Summit $801 million of deposits and 16 branches.

That transaction was the first since Mr. Cox became CEO last January 1994. He replaced Thomas Sayles, who remains as chairman.

Mr. Cox also purchased Lancaster Financial Ltd., a Parsippany-based mortgage company. While analysts say the move has hurt Summit in the short run because of the nationwide mortgage slump, they concede it is a good long-term move.

Mr. Cox tried to acquire Perth Amboy-based Bankers Corp., with $1.7 billion in assets. But that deal fell through when bank stocks plummeted last year.

Mr. Cox remains remarkably low-key and composed in this frenetic market. He insists acquiring other banks takes second priority in Summit's grand plans to instill a retail store culture in all its branches and at the executive level.

If Summit intends to remain independent, Mr. Cox believes these internal changes will force competitors to take market share from the bank in the old-fashioned way.

He has brought in consultants to teach employees how to sell mutual funds, annuities, home equity loans, and other products. He says he's taken a few of the classes himself.

The bank is also undergoing a review of the way it handles customers at the branch level.

"One of the ways we must change our culture is embodied in the acronym 'DRASTIC,' which stands for 'Dumb Rules and Stupid Things That Impact Customers,' " he wrote last year in an internal publication to company employees.

More significantly, Mr. Cox and executives reorganized into three major business lines: retail banking, commercial lending, and a private banking group.

The moves were made two years ago as part of Summit's "Vision 56" program, a restructuring plan with the goal of reaching an efficiency ratio of 56% in 1996. The ratio currently stands at 60%.

Summit used to have three subsidiaries in three different geographic markets, but over the last few years it has consolidated the company into one bank.

Analysts describe the 52 year-old Mr. Cox as forward-looking and say he fits into what they think of as the new culture of bank chief executives.

As Ms. Summers of Ryan Beck puts it, the successful banker of the future will no longer be the dictator whose orders get filtered down the executive ranks. Instead, CEOs will be leading entrepreneurial executives, particularly if the bank is developing a sales culture.

"For salespeople it's a whole different ball game," says Ms. Summers. "You've got to cultivate relationships. You've got to motivate people. It's a leadership quality."

Ingraining that sales culture into the minds of his staff is the key to independence, Mr. Cox says. "I think you lose it (your independence) because you lose your focus, your purpose, your culture. And we're not going to let that happen."

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