GREENDALE, Wis. - Michael Murry gropes behind the seat of his forest-green Ford Explorer and grabs a briefcase. "Don't be nervous; I do this all the time," he says, rifling the attache on his lap as he corners a turn.

"Here it is; I've got it," proclaims the chief executive of Merchants and Manufacturers Bancorp, waving a sheaf of papers.

Contortions are one of the many special skills Mr. Murry has mastered since he took to the streets to promote his company's bank subsidiaries, Lincoln State Bank and Franklin State Bank, in suburban Milwaukee.

After embarking on a costly expansion that included two new branches, Mr. Murry decided in January 1991 to forgo his cushy office and work full time on the road drumming up business for his $132 million-asset banking company.

Don't laugh: The tactic has proven a big success. In the past 18 months, Manufacturers' commercial loan portfolio has grown by a whopping 60%. And Mr. Murry has apparently been largely responsible.

In the first half of this year, for example, Mr. Murry accounted for $8.7 million, or 61% of the $14.3 million in total originations among the company's dozen loan officers.

"With an office, it is easy to sit down and open the paper," explains Mr. Murry, 47. "Without an office, you are almost forced to stay out there and keep a pulse on what's going on."

Like many U.S. bankers, Mr. Murry launched a branch expansion just as the economy began to stall. Between 1989 and 1990, 3,627 bank branches were opened nationally, according to BEI Golembe, a Washington-based consulting firm.

Spurring Loan Demand

To counteract the costs of growth and a nationwide slump in loan demand, community banks such as M&M have been forced to come up with creative marketing campaigns and innovative products to spur loan demand.

For Mr. Murry, that meant taking the show on the road.

"The one thing [community bankers] have as an advantage is their personal approach," says the peripatetic executive. "We have to market that."

So ardent is Mr. Murry about making calls in his truck that about the only time he's seen at headquarters is when he "comes in occasionally to use the phone and the bathroom," says Conrad Kaminski, president and chief operating officer of the parent.

Profitability Hits the Streets

Indeed, most operational duties are carried out by Mr. Kaminski and the two memberbank presidents, whose chores include making sure Oreo cookies and coffee are on hand for customers.

M&M's board initially thought the idea of a roving banker was a little far fetched, says Mr. Murry. But since the executive hit the streets, the bank's profitability has modestly increased. While 1991's return on assets of 0.46% was a far cry from the industry average of 0.89%, it beat a 1990 ROA of 0.33%.

Mr. Murry's first office on the road was a Lincoln Town Car. In February he bought the truck. "It's more me," he confesses. Since then, he's clocked over 17,000 miles - the rough equivalent of three complete crisscrosses of the continental United States.

Though Mr. Murry's mobile office is hardly luxurious, his Eddie Bauer signature Ford Explorer (list price $22,000) has all the accoutrements he needs to do his job.

Conveniences of Home

In the place of a gun rack, he carries file cabinets stuffed with working papers. Instead of a CB radio, Mr. Murry uses a fax and phone system complete with voice mail.

While Mr. Murry's new office is free from the pitfalls of office politics and power failures, it has left him exposed to the dangers of the road; fender benders and flat tires. So far he's been lucky, experiencing neither; though Mr. Kaminski concedes that Mr. Murry locks his keys in the car "once in a while."

Mr. Murry wears a suit while driving and keeps his coat buttoned. Embroidered on a lapel is a badger carrying a money bag. That's the emblem of the Independent Community Bankers Association of Wisconsin, of which he is president and on whose behalf he has petitioned regulators to adopt separate charters for community banks.

Although tooling around town and meeting clients all day, every day, certainly isn't the norm for a chief executive, Mr. Murry sees himself as a perfect example of what community banking is all about. "What you find with community banks is that we can take a direct personal interest in our customers and can afford the time," he says.

The Personal Touch

Consolidation in the industry opens up new opportunities for community banks to market themselves, says the itinerant executive. As money-center and superregional banks enter new markets, he says, many small businesses are put off by management changes and centralized underwriting performed by strangers miles away from the community.

Acquisitions in the Milwaukee area by Norwest Corp. and Banc One touched off a round of calls from small businesses looking to initiate. relationships with M&M, says Mr. Murry.

Richard Platt, a Lincoln State Bank commercial customer is one such emigre. "In one year I had three personal account service people," says Mr. Platt, whose contracting business in Franklin earned $6 million last year. "Before you turn around, you have to start a relationship with another person - and then start all over with another."

Taking advantage of the novelty of a roaming banker, M&M Bancorp ran ads promoting a banker who makes "house calls." The ads featured Mr. Murry beside his Lincoln with the slogan: "Our CEO gave up his office so he could spend more time in yours."

When the promotion was launched in 1991, local attention was so strong that the bank received almost two loan inquiries daily, says Mr. Murry.

Ancestral Memories

As the chief of a bank founded by immigrants, perhaps Mr. Murry's vision of community banking is unique. After all, his great-grandfather, an emigre from Poland, founded a sweet shop three blocks from Lincoln State Bank.

His grandfather opened a clothing shop four blocks from the bank. And Mr. Murry's father spent 52 years at Lincoln State Bank, rising to become president.

"A community bank is supposed to be the catalyst for economic development in its neighborhood," Mr. Murry says of his bank's philosophy. One way M&M has tried to accomplish that goal has been through its Community Development Corp.

The community development unit spearheaded a fund-raising drive in support of a $3.5 million renovation of St. Josaphat's Basilica, one of about 50 of the banks depositors from the religious community, on Milwaukee's south side. The cathedral was built almost a century ago by Polish immigrants using stones from the Federal Building in Chicago, destroyed during the city's great fire.

Watching Rapid Loan Growth

Whether Mr. Murry's overdrive approach to community banking will raise M&M's profitability, as he expects it will, remains to be seen. Nowadays regulators are wary of annual loan growth exceeding 10%, much less 60%.

"We feel very confident about our loans because we work closely with our customers," says Mr. Kaminski. Strict underwriting standards assure that the loans are approved by an oversight board, he adds. "It's really like a partnership between the bank and the customer."

On the horizon, the company has an acquisition pending of Lincoln Savings Bank.

While the merger promises to double the holding' company's assets, it is unlikely to dampen M&M's community spirit: Lincoln Savings Bank was founded in 1910 by the Polish immigrant who nine years later established M&M's flagship Lincoln State Bank.

In the meantime, customers of M&M Bancorp aren't complaining about having a banker who winds his way through the smooth roadways of suburban industrial parks and the potholed alleyways of Milwaukee scouting for business. There aren't many bankers making house calls these days.

"I don't care what my banker drives as long as he does his job - I don't care if he arrives by bicycle," says one Lincoln State Bank client, the owner of a precision machine shop with $12 million in sales. "I just wish I had a truck like that!"

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