Former Postmaster General Anthony Frank has proven himself a deft marketing executive. He did, after all, get the entire country fired up over the introduction of the Elvis Presley stamp.

Mr. Frank will need his legendary salesmanship to pull off his latest venture: melding 49 hand-medown branches from BankAmerica Corp. into Arizona's premier community bank.

"We want to be all the bank that Arizona's households need," he says.

Experts' Ekepticism

Mr. Frank has the backing of some high-profile investors, including former baseball commissioner Peter V. Ueberroth. But many banking experts are skeptical of the project.

A major source of doubt is the nature of the branches that will form the nucleus of Independent Bank, the working name for Mr. Frank's fledgling institution.

"They are mostly old S&L branches with high-cost deposits and no assets," says an investment banker who looked at the package. "It's a tough one to make money on."

Financing also is a major concern. "I'd be surprised if they have all the money in place," says an investor who was asked to participate.

Mr. Frank, 60, insists his investment group has already raised the necessary financing, although additional backers are still being sought to diversify the bank's investment base.

"We definitely have the money," he says.

Richard W. Decker, a veteran California banker who will be Independent's president and chief executive, says the investment group has raised about $220 million, mostly from domestic institutional investors.

Mr. Decker and his associates think they are getting a good buy.

The group will pay less than a 1% premium to acquire $2.1 billion in deposits. BankAmerica, which was forced to divest the branches to satisfy antitrust concerns related to its acquisition of Security Pacific Corp., also has agreed to throw in $1.2 billion of healthy loans. "We had a motivated seller," Mr. Decker says.

The deal is expected to close later this year.

Right now, Independent needs assets. Mr. Decker says the bank expects to buy $200 million to $300 million in assets from sources such as the Resolution Trust Corp., Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., Office of Thrift Supervision, or secondary markets.

Eventually, all these assets will be replaced by consumer and middle-market loans, mostly in the range of $250,000 to $3 million.

"It is wonderful to start from scratch," says Mr. Decker, who is 48. "We start out overcapitalized, with no nonperforming loans, in a state poised for recovery."

To date, Independent has no management team, no board, no corporate identity or advertising campaign, and only a general business plan.

Mr. Frank will be chairman of the new venture but will continue to live in San Francisco. He will set up a mortgage banking operation and deal with the board and regulators.

Mr. Frank is no stranger to the banking business. He was chief executive of Ford Motor Co.'s First Nationwide Bank from 1972 until 1988.

Under his stewardship, First Nationwide was transformed from a $400 million-asset Northern California thrift to an $18.8 billion-asset colossus with offices in 14 states.

But the rapid growth created a slew of problems that the company is still working out. It is saddled with high levels of soured credits, mostly from apartment and commercial real estate loans.

The company reported a $73 million loss last year and a $24.6 million deficit in this year's first quarter.

Decker's Background

Mr. Frank was U.S. postmaster general from early 1988 until he resigned in January. He was responsible for a budget of nearly $50 billion and 750,000 employees.

Mr. Decker was president and chief executive of WestAmerica Bank, San Mateo, Calif., in 1988 and 1989. Earlier, he was executive vice president of First Interstate Bank of California; he joined the Los Angeles banking giant in 1973.

There, he worked in international corporate lending and headed marketing and the trust division among other responsibilities.

Former colleagues at First Interstate characterize Mr. Decker -- an endurance runner and trianthlete -- as a capable executive.

He and Mr. Frank expect to hire 300 to 400 people. The two have received a mountain of resumes and have no immediate plans to use a search firm.

"There is an abundance of talent on the street," Mr. Decker says.

The two executives will need such talent to compete successfully with the heavryweights operating in Arizona.

Rivals Big and Small

Both San Francisco-based BankAmerica and Los Angeles-based First Interstate Bancorp have substantial operations in the state, and Columbus, Ohio-based Banc One Corp. will soon acquire Valley National Corp., Arizona's biggest financial institution.

In addition, several strong community banks are grabbing for the same customers Independent hopes to woo.

Mr. Frank has looked over big troubled thrifts in California, according to sources. But he insists: "We have no hidden master plan that will include out-of-state operations."

Arizona, no doubt, will keep his hands full for quite some time.

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