Tom Hromatka and his colleagues at Vision- Bank don't have what most people would think of as a conventional bank branch - yet. For the past year, the newly chartered bank has operated from a suite of offices at 1601 West Lakes Parkway and a small office in Grimes. When closing loan transactions, its officers typically visit clients at their places of business or in their homes in the evenings.

In less than a year, however, Hromatka and his hand-picked team of seasoned bankers have originated more than $100 million in loans.

That kind of start-up growth is impressive, given the competitive banking market in Greater Des Moines. In the past year, at least a dozen banks have received approval to build new offices in the metro area as lenders scramble to capitalize on a rapidly expanding market, particularly near the newest commercial developments in West Des Moines.

Greater Des Moines' explosive bank branch development reflects banks' efforts to capitalize on shifting consumer habits and greater use of technology, said Mark Imerman, an Iowa State University Extension program specialist in economics.

"Branching used to present a technological hallenge," he said. "It's a little like deep-sea oil drilling; once I've got one established, it's easy to run out lines from there. That's what banks are doing. They're finding people are more mobile, that they want to be able to bank where hey can drive by. If a bank can put up a small building and glean enough business to justify the staffing, all of their information systems are already paid for. ... It all comes down to expanding your ability to make loans without greatly expanding your capital costs."

According to Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. statistics, banks doing business in Greater Des Moines operated 210 branch offices as of June 30, 2006, 32 more locations than four years earlier. Total deposits at the end of fiscal 2006 were $10.35 billion, a 5 percent increase over the previous fiscal year.

A few weeks ago, construction began on VisionBank's permanent headquarters building at the Village of Ponderosa in West Des Moines. The 18,000-square-foot building, which is expected to be completed Dec. 1, will be the sole bank serving the development, which will have more than 500 single-family homes within walking distance of the retail center.

"This is a little different model,"Hromatka said. "The typical model is, build a new facility, try to obtain personnel and build a customer base," he said."We're building a bank with relationships and customers first, and then we'll take care of the facilities later."

VisionBank plans to build a niche as a boutique bank that offers concierge-style service to all of its clients, similar to how most banks treat their private bank clients, Hromatka said. The bank also plans to begin construction this spring on a temporary branch in Ankeny.

Rick Messerschmidt, president of First Bank, said his bank's decision to build its new 15,000-square foot headquarters in West Glen was in part a strategic move with future expansion in mind. Of that space, the bank is currently leasing out about 2,000 square feet.

"We're in the process of expanding our investment banking services; that's really a first step," said Messerschmidt, who said the bank had run out of room in its former headquarters at 1630 22nd St., in West Des Moines. The West Glen office is first Bank's fifth location in the metro area. "The most important thing is that we just wanted to be in a position that when we wanted to do something,we had the space to do it in," he said.

Another privately owned bank, Fort Dodge-based First American Bank, is taking a long view of the market, said its president, Doug Bass. "We look at it as a marathon, not a sprint," said Bass, who last week was in Fort Myers, Fla., where the bank last year acquired a struggling branch in that booming Southwest Florida city. First American Bank, which has 17 branches across Iowa and five in Florida, last year added a branch in Waukee with its acquisition of Waukee State Bank.

"We're not a bank that's going to be building branch locations throughout the metro," Bass said. "We don't have a desire to have 17 branches [in Greater Des Moines] like Wells Fargo; that's not our niche. Our growth has been in excess of 25 percent each year, compounded, primarily in business banking, private banking and wealth management, and we see that continuing, based on the niche we play."

Bass said he sees a "significant, continuing demand" for commercial real estate loans in Greater Des Moines. First American is currently evaluating another acquisition opportunity and is considering opening another branch as well, he said.

Besides bricks-and-mortar expansions, many banks in the Greater Des Moines market are also at some stage of rolling out remote deposit capture systems, which enable their commercial customers to scan and send checks electronically from their offices rather than sending a courier to the bank every day.

Darrell Hughes, president of Two Rivers Bank & Trust, said the new technology will enable his bank, which is beginning its third year of operations, to be "extremely competitive," particularly with larger multi-branch banks.

"We have the same technology as the bigger banks, but we don't have the branches to compete with them," he said."With these remote capture machines, we don't need those branches."

Two Rivers has been testing the devices, which are about the size of a toaster and cost about $1,200 each, since September, and now has four of them installed in clients' businesses. The bank anticipates that one of those clients will remotely deposit approximately $4 million in checks per year; that client was previously unable to bank with Two Rivers because the bank didn't have an Ankeny branch, Hughes said. The bank hopes to have 25 clients using remote deposit capture by the end of this year.

The bank finished its second year with about $140 million in assets and a $130 million loan portfolio. "Most importantly,we've been profitable this year," Hughes said. Two Rivers' after-tax net income was a little over $200,000 last year after building up its loan loss reserves, he said.

"We grew faster in our first year, but we purposely slowed down," he said."One of our No. 1 priorities is loan quality, and going into this year we felt there was some softness in the market. We didn't know quite how the housing market would end up,so we purposely went slower than our first year."

Two Rivers, which operates a branch at 4500 Merle Hay Road in addition to its main office at 4400 Westown Parkway in West Des Moines, will probably add a third metro location in 2008, Hughes said.

VisionBank's approach was to look beyond "just a nice corner on a busy street," said Dean Whitaker, a cofounder and senior vice president.

"That's what really drew us to [the Village of Ponderosa]," he said. "People will be going there not necessarily just to work. It's its own little community, and that spoke volumes to what we're trying to do."

Though it's been in business less than a year, VisionBank has client relationships its three founders brought with them from more than 50 years of combined experience,Whitaker said. Its holding company, Ogden BancShares Inc., provides capital, technology and back-office services, but the bank operates autonomously, he said.

The concept for the new bank grew out of a frustration with the "fit the square peg in the square hole" mentality of larger banks,Whitaker said."Ogden Banc-Shares was formed by bankers who had worked for typically larger banks that had gotten bogged down in processes and got away from a focus on people. ... The opportunity to join the Ogden Bancshares group and start a separate bank under their holding company was more than appealing to us."

When VisionBank's Ponderosa office opens,"we're going to take that personalized concept of banking even into the retail environment,"Hromatka said.

"Our lobby, for instance, won't look like a bank lobby," he said."It will be more of a hotel-café setting, where the bankers will come to you rather than going back to someone's office.We think banking is more an experience, not just a place to go do a transaction, similar to what our commercial team has done on the commercial side.We think that's where banking needs to be."