Former Wells Fargo & Co. executive Anat Bird is widely credited with coining the term “super community banking.”

So it only seemed logical that California Community Bancshares — a two-year-old, multibank holding company with designs on doubling or tripling its assets in the next five years — would consider Ms. Bird to lead its expansion.

After a nationwide search, $1.2 billion-asset California Community recently named Ms. Bird its new president and chief executive officer. Ms. Bird, 49, took the helm March 1, succeeding Ronald Bachli, who will remain on the board of directors of the San Francisco holding company.

Richard Decker, California Community’s chairman, said Mr. Bachli is an attorney who specializes in bank mergers and acquisitions, not the day-to-day operations of a bank. By contrast, Ms. Bird has 20 years’ experience as a top bank executive, most recently as head of Wells Fargo’s $8 billion-asset Northern California division. She is also well known in the industry as a speaker, author, and columnist (she contributes regularly to American Banker).

“I learned a lot at Wells,” Ms. Bird said. “It’s going to make me a better competitor.”

Added Mr. Decker, onetime CEO of Westamerica Bancorp in San Rafael, Calif., “Anat Bird has a proven track record of developing a sales and service culture to enhance revenue and profitability.”

California Community Bancshares is an outgrowth of Belvedere Capital Partners Inc., an investment firm founded in 1997 to buy stakes in California community banks. With $160 million from such blue-chip investors as Bell Atlantic Corp. (now Verizon) and the California Public Employees Retirement System, Belvedere Capital has bought seven community banks, consolidating them under one holding company and three banks with 35 branches.

The company is assembling a much larger fund — roughly $400 million — that Mr. Decker said it will use to buy more banks in California and the Pacific Northwest. Its goal is to build a super community bank company with assets of $4 billion to $7 billion.

Not everything has gone as planned for California Community. A public offering scheduled for last summer was put on hold amid a lukewarm market for bank IPOs. And its largest subsidiary, $670 million-asset Placer Sierra Bank in Auburn, has struggled to keep pace with its peers as it has undergone the transformation from thrift to commercial bank.

“It’s like learning to throw left-handed if you’re right-handed,” Robert J. Gallivan, a principal at Bank Compensation Strategies in San Diego, said of Placer Sierra’s conversion.

In an interview last week, Ms. Bird acknowledged that California Community has yet to “live up to its potential.” The privately held company does not release consolidated earnings, but according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., Placer Sierra’s return on assets was just 0.23% through the first nine months of 2000, compared with 1.34% for commercial banks with assets of $500 million to $1 billion. Return on equity was 2.02%, versus 14.95% for its peers.

“If you look at their earnings and their relationships per household, they are not where they need to be,” said Ms. Bird, who lives in Sacramento and will work out of Placer Sierra Bank’s headquarters.

Placer Sierra operates 28 branches in the Sierra foothills, a fast-growing area east of Sacramento. California Community’s two other banks are Bank of Orange County in Orange and Sacramento Commercial Bank.

Because all three banks are in high-growth markets, Ms. Bird said, she sees plenty of opportunity for “organic” growth. She plans to make cross-selling a top priority, focusing mainly on products that she views as most profitable, such as annuities and cash management.

Mr. Gallivan called the hiring of Ms. Bird a “coup” for California Community. A former chief operating officer at $9 billion-asset Roosevelt Financial Group in St. Louis and a onetime head of Norwest Corp.’s Minneapolis region, she “is exactly what this organization needs at this point in its growth,” he said. “It needs an operating person that has the respect and the expertise to tie together that franchise. Nobody in that organization has run a bank of more than a few hundred million” of assets.

Mr. Gallivan added that Ms. Bird’s presence could also be a major selling point in California Community’s efforts to raise money for its second fund and, ultimately, its public offering.

“Their timing couldn’t be more perfect,” he said.

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