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Community First looks to grow

Community First Bankshares Inc. has targeted metropolitan Minneapolis-St.

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Community First Bankshares Inc. has targeted metropolitan Minneapolis-St. Paul, Denver, Salt Lake City and San Diego for expansion.

Community First President and CEO Mark Anderson, at the company's annual meeting Tuesday in Fargo, said additional Fargo-Moorhead offices also are likely.

The Fargo-based financial services corporation currently has 136 offices in 12 states: Arizona, California, Colorado, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, Wisconsin and Iowa.

Anderson told 400 employees and shareholders at the Holiday Inn the company has plans to add three offices this year and a total of 30 by 2007.

"We're interested in looking for opportunities to expand our footprint," Anderson said.

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He said Community First company is not likely to look beyond its 12-state base. Rather, the company that made a name for itself in small- to medium-sized markets is looking at four big metro areas in the West.

Community First has five offices in Salt Lake City suburbs, six offices in four San Diego suburbs, a slew of offices in communities surrounding Denver and just one office, in Ramsey, in the Twin Cities metropolitan area.

Anderson said Community First would most likely enter those metropolitan markets with new offices, rather than acquiring existing banking operations.

"We think the best opportunity for us, right now, is just to open there," he said. Anderson said existing banks looked at in those markets tend to be overpriced. "A little bit of that is supply and demand," he said.

Ron Peterson, a financial analyst with Sandler O'Neill & Partners in Chicago who follows Community First, said those four markets make sense. "Obviously, they have some of the better growth demographics. And they (Community First leaders) believe they already have strong management in those markets."

Anderson said the company would also like to add offices in Fargo-Moorhead "in the next three to five years."

Community First employs 600 people in Fargo among its four banking locations, investment and insurance centers, data processing center, loan center and corporate headquarters here. Company-wide, it has 2,300 employees.

Anderson and the retired Don Mengedoth, former Community First chairman, started Community First in 1986 as a network of 21 small-town community banks discarded by First Bank System (which later became U.S. Bank).

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They took the company public -- on the NASDAQ market under the ticker symbol CFBX -- in 1991 with the sale of 1.9 million shares of common stock at $10.75 a pop. That same year the company bought First Interstate Bank of Fargo and put its logo on the top of the downtown tower.

Community First today is a $5.8 billion company with 38 million shares outstanding. Community First in 2002 had a net income of $79.2 million, for a record $1.97 per share.

Peterson, who before becoming a financial analyst worked in Fargo as a bank examiner for the U.S. Office of the Comptroller of Currency, said Community First is a Wall Street leader among financial services firms.

"They're in the top 10 percent of the industry," he said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Gerry Gilmour at (701) 241-5560

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