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Bankers Trust: Out from Ruan’s shadow and on the prowl.


For decades, Ruan Financial Corp., the umbrella organization that controls a vast empire of real estate, banking, trucking and investments, had an ace in the hole: a commercial bank.     As laws were rewritten to prevent commercial enterprises from owning banks in the decades after the Great Depression, Ruan was allowed to hold on to Bankers Trust Co., an arrangement that managers felt gave its main trucking and transportation business an advantage over rivals.     The arrangement worked for everyone but Bankers Trust itself, which was limited from expanding by the very same laws that tied it to the rest of Ruan.     Now, much is different.

Bankers Trust, led by Chief Executive Michael Earley, in March finished a two-year process to separate the bank from its corporate parent. The arrangement, which has been approved by every federal regulator except the Internal Revenue Service, led to the creation of a bank holding company called BTC Financial Corp.     In simple terms, the new structure means that Bankers Trust, which operates eight branches in the Des Moines area, can open new banks and is free to buy up other financial-related companies.

Not wasting time, Earley plans to open a Bankers Trust bank in Cedar Rapids in December and is considering opening a retail branch in South Dakota, where the bank currently runs its trust-related services.

He is also studying more than a half-dozen other acquisition targets throughout Iowa, South Dakota and even east of the Mississippi River.

“We’re looking eastward along I-80,” he said. “The Quad Cities, Iowa City, maybe Western Illinois. There are great communities between here and the western suburbs of Chicago.”

Bankers Trust wants to expand its reach to better compete with other large banking companies in Central Iowa, including Wells Fargo Bank Iowa NA, U.S. Bancorp and Bank of America, while continuing to increase its assets and its profits.

During Earley’s 10 years as head of Bankers Trust, assets have grown to $1.5 billion from $400 million. With its financial clout but fewer than 300 employees, Earley says the bank has the heft to compete on product offerings but the agility to occasionally sidestep or outpace its rivals.

Directly underneath Bankers Trust’s new corporate structure is another holding company called Midamerica Financial Corp. The company’s three units, Bankers Trust Cedar Rapids, Bankers Trust Des Moines and Bankers Trust South Dakota, all fall under the Midamerica umbrella.

It’s a complex organizational chart, but having Midamerica as the direct parent will let Earley expand Bankers Trust under names other than Bankers Trust.

Earley is also considering buying money management firms, including companies that offer stock picking, custody, bill paying and other wealth-management services.

As the Baby Boomers age, there are increasing needs for financial services beyond basic banking. Earley wants to position Bankers Trust in a way to take advantage of the trend. An acquisition would also help diversify the company’s sources of revenue.

“Baby Boomers have caused nEarley every socio-economic change over the last 50 years,” he said. “There has been a massive accumulation of wealth, and it will have to be managed and transferred.”

The new structure could allow Earley to again triple Bankers Trust’s assets, he said. That would bring the company’s assets to about $6 billion.

“We’re focusing on how far we can reach and not lose sight of who we are and how we do things,” he said.

So far, Earley said, the economic downturn is not hurting his plans. It’s not helping either, because most of his potential targets “have quite a bit of staying power,” he said. “They’re not weaklings.”

That situation could change, he said, if Iowa’s economy takes a turn for the worse.

One of the keys to Bankers Trust’s growth is its focus on personal service, Earley said. Each of the company’s employees has their home phone number listed on their business card. Techniques such as that help distinguish Bankers Trust from its rivals, Earley said.

“In this day and age, the mere thought of dialing an 800-number (for a call center) is frightening,” he said.

Earley, who has a law degree but has never practiced law, is a big believer in using computers and other technology to give his bank capabilities that competitors lack. In recent years, for instance, Bankers Trust has modernized its computer systems to allow for more sophisticated cash management techniques for its commercial customers.

Under the new ownership structure, Earley said, it’s also possible that the Ruan family, which continues to control Bankers Trust despite the organizational changes, could make shares in the company available to outside investors, “if they thought that broader ownership would accelerate growth.”

However, a public offering isn’t likely, he said. “I see it more as a short list of sophisticated investors,” he said. “I don’t see it trading to thousands of investors.”

He said there is no chance that the bank will be sold. The bank’s upper management has a right of first refusal, and Bankers Trust has long offered to pay customers $100 for each account they own if the bank’s name changes.

“That might sound trivial, but it amounts to a $20 million poison pill,” he said.

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