Add Westernbank of Puerto Rico to the list of banks going after the United States’ fast-growing Hispanic market.

Frank C. Stipes, the president and chief executive officer of Westernbank and its parent, $5 billion-asset W Holding Co., announced at an investor conference in New York late last month that Puerto Rico’s fourth-largest bank plans to enter the United States within the next two years, starting out somewhere between New York and Miami, and to target “upper-echelon” Hispanics.

Mr. Stipes, who had had little contact with U.S. investors for five years, has spent much of the summer telling Westernbank’s expansionist story to them and analysts and by conference call. Other goals he has outlined include taking Westernbank into markets besides the United States and making it the second-largest bank in Puerto Rico, behind $18.6 billion-asset Banco Popular, by 2003.

In an interview last week, he said, “We hope to continue to grow at the pace we are going now, and to do that beyond the next two to three years, we have to move offshore — into the United States and elsewhere.”

So far, his sales pitch seems to be working. Keefe, Bruyette & Woods Inc. of New York has picked up coverage on W Holding, the first investment bank on the mainland to do so, and over the last two weeks the holding company’s stock hit 52-week highs on two separate days. On some days volume exceeded six times its average; it was trading at $14.80 midday Tuesday.

Mary Lou Hague, an analyst with Keefe Bruyette, said she decided to cover little-known W Holding because of its strong earnings — it had a record profit gain in the second quarter — and its ambitious plans.

The company has turned a profit every quarter since it opened for business, in 1948, it has averaged earnings growth of 30% a year the past decade, and its assets have risen more than $1 billion a year since 1997 through organic growth. Its second-quarter earnings were $15.1 million, up 37% from the year-earlier period.

“This was a case where the numbers spoke for themselves,” Ms. Hague said.

In Puerto Rico, Westernbank plans to finish 2001 having opened nine more branches, and it will continue on a similar branch-building path the next three years, Mr. Stipes said.

Westernbank says it has not set any U.S. branch-number or asset-size goals but that it hopes to emulate banks known for service, such as Commerce Bank of Cherry Hill, N.J. Like Commerce, Westernbank keeps many of its branches open seven days a week, and most of them have 7 a.m.-to-7 p.m. hours weekdays. Some branches have 100 parking spaces and 11 drive-through windows.

Also, Westernbank is the only bank in Puerto Rico to have a biometric customer identification system in every branch. This technology scans fingerprints or signatures instead of using personal identification numbers.

“There are banks that are just now doing what we have been doing for years, and that tells you that our strategy implemented here will work well in the U.S.,” Mr. Stipes said.

Westernbank is the second Puerto Rico-based bank this summer to announce designs on a U.S. expansion. Doral Financial said in early July that it planned to add more U.S. branches through its $192 million-asset New York subsidiary.

Meanwhile, several U.S. banks are paying more attention to the Hispanic population, which rose 59% from 1990 to 2000, according to the U.S Census Bureau. They include Chicago’s Bank One Corp., which recently started a venture with the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce to boost its lending to Hispanic-owned businesses, and U.S. Bancorp in Minneapolis, which has started on a marketing campaign intended to add more Hispanics to its rolls.

Mr. Stipes said Westernbank tries to be especially customer-friendly. One product, for example, lets borrowers “renovate” a loan every 24 months — renegotiate the terms and even take the loan back up to its original amount plus 10%. Other examples: Kids can easily see over the teller counters and can start their own savings accounts, their parents setting limits on withdrawals.

Mr. Stipes bubbles when discussing Westernbank’s various projects. At the New York presentation last month, the conference director had to cut him off when the banker started to sound like an auctioneer.

“The CEO definitely has excitement and animation,” Keefe Bruyette’s Ms. Hague said. “And he gives his everything to the company and what it can be in the future.”

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