Darrell Knudson's timing may be impeccable.

Just when the passage of interstate banking is about to fully open Missouri to outsiders, the chairman of Wichita-based Fourth Financial Corp. has restarted an expansion bid into the Show-Me State.

A recent agreement to purchase Independence-based Standard Bancorp., which has $78 million in assets, is Fourth Financial's first move back into Missouri after a play for Great Southern Bancorp, a $499 million-asset thrift in Springfield, unraveled.

Now that Mr. Knudson's plan to build a western Missouri franchise are again on track, observers say it is not a moment too soon.

Interstate banking, expected to take effect next year, will open the state to acquirers like Ban( One Corp., Norwest Corp., and others long barred from entry.

Steven Schroll, banking analyst at PiperJaffray Inc., said that after an initial round of large deals is complete, players will look for smaller in-market deals that will have them bidding against Fourth Financial.

"Anytime you get another acquirer in the market, the cost of playing poker goes up," he said.

The heavily fragmented Missouri market leaves few options for the bank, except to do smaller deals. Of the major independents, only Mark Twain Bancshares is small enough to be bought.

Fourth Financial has $7.5 billion in assets in two states. Mark Twain is about a quarter of its size. But analysts say the St. Louis-based company might not be worth it. It offers little franchise in western Missouri and would likely carry a high premium.

"It's going to be hard to put together a franchise in that part of the state because there aren't that many things of size left to buy," said Joseph Stieven, senior banking analyst at Stifel, Nicolaus & Co. in St. Louis. "It's going to take a long time."

For his part, Mr. Knudson does not mind being patient.

"There are a lot of high-quality, neighborhood-type banks on that side of the state," he said in a telephone interview. "It's not hard to think of having $1 billion to $3 billion in [asset] size there."

Such a plan is not unprecedented for fast-growing Fourth Financial. After only two years in Oklahoma, the company may soon have the largest retail banking franchise them.

Unlike the Missouri situation, Mr. Knudson was able to acquire some larger banks in Oklahoma and then add smaller institutions to the mix.

The move followed a rapid succession of deals in Kansas, spurred by 1992 legislation opening that state to outside acquirers.

These mergers solidified Fourth Financial's position as the leading bank in its home state.

But the company's acquisition juggernaut, which averaged a deal a month at its peak last year, has slowed recently as seller expectations have risen.

Mr. Knudson insists that the desire to grow won't overshadow the need to do smart deals.

"We're not going to go out and overpay in the market just so we can have a larger balance sheet," he said. "We kind of take it one step at a time."

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