Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Laurentian Bank Open to Overtures from Big 5

Canadian Press, Allan Swift, 8 March 2006

Montreal — The chief executive of Laurentian Bank of Canada says the bank's improved performance should make it more attractive as a partner for one of the country's five big banks.

But a year after he launched a surprise offer to link up with one of the other banks, Raymond McManus admitted yesterday he still hasn't had a single offer.

McManus said his offer, to buy the Quebec branches of one of the big banks and sell a share of itself to the larger bank, makes more sense than ever, because Laurentian Bank is improving its results while the Quebec market share of the five biggest banks is in slow decline.

"The offer's out there, but at this stage there are no developments to report," McManus said in response to a shareholder's question at the annual meeting.

"We've met with a lot of analysts who thinks it makes sense. As Laurentian Bank becomes more attractive, the possibility of this happening intensifies."

Laurentian is the third largest banking institution in Quebec, in terms of branches, well behind the Desjardins Group credit unions and National Bank of Canada, and comes fifth in terms of its commercial and retail banking market share.

The five big Toronto-based banks together have less than 25 per cent of Quebec's market, 15 to 20 per cent lower than it was 20 years ago, McManus said.

Bigger issues

Sprott Securities analyst Jason Donville agrees with McManus's idea, but he believes the big five banks the CEO is looking to are focused on bigger issues.

"It's probably high on Mr. McManus's agenda; unfortunately it's very low on everybody else's agenda and therefore although I think it's a good idea, the likelihood of anything happening at this point is very low," Donville said.

Laurentian is the only bank with a large proportion — 42 per cent — of its employees belonging to a union, which is seen as a deterrent to a takeover by other union-averse banks.

The bank recently began a "complicity" program to use its union connection as leverage to try to sign up clients among the 550,000 card-carrying members of the Quebec Federation of Labour. Along with cheaper rates, the bank is also offering union members strike insurance.

McManus acknowledged it is hard to convince people to change banks, and said it will take five years to make a breakthrough among union members.

Laurentian has 3,000 employees, assets of $16.7 billion and operates 157 branches in Quebec.