If First National Bank of Huntington had granted Marshall T. Reynolds the $300,000 loan he sought in the late 1960s, it might be around today.

Nursing the wounds of rejection, Mr. Reynolds started buying shares of First National Bank with profits from his printing business. By the early 1980s he was the majority shareholder.

"My first thought was to just shut the damn thing down," Mr. Reynolds joked in an interview.

Instead he made himself chairman and increased the bank's assets to $3 billion through mergers. In 1993 he sold the holding company, Key Centurion Bancshares, to Bank One Corp. of Columbus, Ohio, for $536 million.

But he didn't stop there. Mr. Reynolds roamed the country, buying up stakes in undercapitalized community banks. The 62-year-old businessman controls eight of them-in Kentucky, Florida, Louisiana, California, and Washington, D.C.-and owns shares in many others.

"He looks at virtually anything," said Larry Fentriss, a partner at Baxter Fentriss & Co., a Richmond, Va.-based mergers and acquisition firm, who has worked with Mr. Reynolds since 1977. "And he's made an enormous amount of money."

Mr. Reynolds pocketed $20 million on the Key Centurion sale. The deal also made instant millionaires of scores of fellow West Virginians, elevating Mr. Reynolds to cult-hero status in his home state.

Now Mr. Reynolds is seeking to duplicate the West Virginia achievement in Kentucky, where he runs Premier Financial Bancorp in Georgetown. Since the mid-1990s Premier has acquired nine banks in Kentucky, Ohio, and West Virginia, boosting its assets to nearly $650 million.

And with a goal of building Premier to more than $3 billion of assets, Mr. Reynolds predicted his biggest payday is still to come. "I will do a deal as big as Bank One," he said. "It took 10 years for Key Centurion, from the time I started it to the day I sold it."

Mr. Reynolds has recently emerged as one of community banking's most active investors. In the last year alone he paid $17.4 million cash for Summit Savings Bank in Rohnert Park, Calif., and engineered a deal to sell First Guaranty Bank in Hammond, La., to New Orleans-based Hibernia Corp. for $78 million-a whopping 5.41 times book value.

"He used to be shy and reserved and just soaked everything in," Mr. Fentriss said. "These days he is more vocal."

That was most apparent during Mr. Reynolds' bitter takeover of Abigail Adams National Bancorp, of which he and his wife, Shirley, own the largest stake.

In April, Mr. Reynolds launched a proxy fight to oust the management team of Washington-based Abigail Adams, the nation's largest woman-owned banking company. He prevailed, despite a suit against him by minority shareholders who claimed he intentionally derailed Abigail Adams' merger agreement with a Virginia community bank.

Similar accusations are flying in connection with a lawsuit Hibernia filed against First Guaranty last month, claiming that Mr. Reynolds is trying to undermine that deal.

Mr. Reynolds, who owns 41% of $244 million-asset First Guaranty, acknowledged that the Hibernia deal is less enticing than when it was announced in July, because Hibernia's stock has plunged $14.

But he denied allegations that canceled meetings and delayed filings are part of an effort to kill the deal, arguing that he is simply moving at the pace allowed by regulators. Mr. Reynolds said he would still vote his shares in favor of the deal, but said a majority of the shareholders are likely to vote against it.

Though the public battles have been embarrassing-particularly the six- month Abigail Adams ordeal-Mr. Reynolds said there is a bright side.

"Everything in life makes you either smarter or richer," he said.

Oddly, though he chairs two banks and has orchestrated more than two dozen acquisitions, Mr. Reynolds does not consider himself a banker. He switches hats constantly, while flying around the country in his eight-seat Raytheon Beech jet flown by two former USAir pilots.

Day to day he runs Champion Industries, a publicly traded printing and office products company he has run in Huntington since the 1960s, after a two-year stint in the Army.

He is also chairman of three companies: the one that owns the local Radisson hotel; McCorkle Machine and Engineering Co., also in Huntington; and Broughton Foods, a dairy production company in Marietta, Ohio, which recently agreed to sell to Suiza Foods Corp. of Dallas.

Despite his success and personal fortune, Mr. Reynolds is anything but flashy.

He chews Beech Nut tobacco. His first-floor office inside the nondescript Champion printing building looks like a tornado just blew through-the mail is scattered all over the floor, and newspapers and other documents are stacked so high that they obscure the family pictures on the wall.

Mr. Reynolds, who never attended college, did not learn to cultivate highly profitable community banks from a book.

But observers said he has an uncanny instinct to see potential where others do not. They describe him as an opportunistic value hunter who is neither a bottom-fisher nor a strategic acquirer of banks.

"Marshall has built a fantastic reputation in West Virginia and he doesn't tolerate mediocrity," said George M. Ferris Jr., chairman of the Washington investment banking firm Ferris Baker Watts. "People want to put their money alongside him whenever they get the chance."

Acknowledging his reputation for creating wealth, Mr. Reynolds boasted in the interview that he could raise millions of dollars to buy a bank before the sun set that day.

He usually buys underperformers plagued with problems. Mr. Reynolds said he typically injects some capital, reduces the overhead, gives it some "tender lovin' care," and makes sure the chief executive officer has a vision and is well known in the community.

"Just give me a bank with a good net interest margin and poor results and I'll fix it in a month," Mr. Reynolds said.

Bankers who work for Mr. Reynolds said he does not meddle with the daily business of the bank, but rather plays a nurturing role. He usually contacts the CEOs twice a month, he said. But if the bank is stumbling and needs attention, Mr. Reynolds will call three times a week-sometimes after 1 a.m.

"He doesn't micromanage," said Kate Carr, CEO of Abigail Adams. "All he wants to know is what the projections will be. He has given me all the support to get the bank to where it is."

Mr. Reynolds takes pride in his takeover of First National of Huntington-the bank that initially shunned him for a loan.

The bank "didn't want to hear my company's story," Mr. Reynolds recalls. "They asked questions like, 'who was your Daddy?' and so on."

And he is even more proud of the end result. "We put together a tremendous franchise," said Mr. Reynolds. "It broke my heart to sell it, but it probably was the best thing for the state."

Mr. Reynolds may not shed a tear if he decides to sell his next empire- Premier Financial. He would like to expand into Indiana, add more locations in West Virginia, and surpass $1 billion of assets in 1999. Just this week Premier announced it was buying its 10th bank, Mount Vernon (Ky.) Bancshares.

Mr. Reynolds has similar plans for Abigail Adams. After the proxy fight Mr. Reynolds appointed four new directors and installed Ms. Carr as CEO. He said that the company will report "fantastic results" for the third quarter, and that its stock has gained $3 a share since the proxy fight.

Other bankers in town must like what they see. Mr. Reynolds said four area banks have already approached him about merging.

"Abigail Adams is a jewel in that market and back on solid footing," Mr. Reynolds said. "It has a great future. Premier does, too."

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