If appearances were all that mattered, Oklahoma's 23d-largest commercial bank would be much like any other small-town bank. On the street level, where the teller lines are, a dozen or so employees sit at dark wooden desks, stapling papers together and talking with customers looking for car loans or new checking accounts. Upstairs, in the commercial-lending department, the owner of a dress shop or hardware store might be dropping by to deliver a check or chat with a lending officer. Even the bank's boardroom, where a stately portrait hangs on walnut paneling, looks about as unusual as a Holiday Inn.

All of which gives a visitor the impression of an elaborately constructed stage set, complete with well-dressed men and women sent down from central casting and told to act like bankers. It is hard to imagine, in other words, how Stillwater National Bank & Trust Co. can be what it is and still look quite so ordinary.

Certainly the numbers by which banks are measured give quite a different impression. On 1984 assets of $165.9 million, for example, Stillwater National earned $2 million -- at least 20% more than most U.S. banks its size. Those assets have quadrupled over the past decade, yet the bank's loan losses have remained low. A banker examining its balance sheet would spot something else right away: where most banks depend largely on interest income, Stillwater National earned a hefty 80% of its profits from fees, implying a level of operation a lot of banks haven't discovered yet. Once a sleepy, second-fiddle bank in a dusty Oklahoma town, it has made itself into the preeminent bank of a growing regional center -- and it has done so through maneuvers as astute as those of any big-city financier.

Go-go banks, to be srue, are nothing new in Oklahoma. From Oklahoma National Bank to Penn Square Bank, high-riding moneylenders have risen and fallen with the fortunes of the oil business. But that only makes Stillwater National all the more remarkable. The bank has one picture of an oil rig on an upstairs wall. That is about as close as it has come to the industry.

So what's the secret? "We're not trying to be everything to everybody," says Bob McCormick, a trim 50-year-old who has engineered the bank's remarkable growth. "But over the years, I guess we've done some pretty creative things for a little county-seat bank in Oklahoma."

A decade ago, admits McCormick's counterpart at the number-two bank in the town of Stillwater, "we were the biggest bank in town. But we haven't grown the way they have." Part of the reason, he says, is that they have "chosen a different strategy." But there's another factor, too.

"Bob McCormick," the banker adds, "is a very sharp guy."

When Bob McCormick was growing up in Oklahoma City during the 1940s and '50s, nobody took him for the banking type. His maternal grandfather had dabbled in real estate and in oil and gas, with mixed success. His father, a hard-charging wholesale paper salesman, was so bothered by his boy's careless attitude that he packed him off, at age 16, to military school. Young Bob, explains a friend from that era, wasn't exactly lazy, "he just didn't do any more than he had to do."

"I saw him as a perfect salesman," the friend adds, "running a Chevy dealership. Definitely not a bank."

It took McCormick five years to get through the University of Oklahoma, where, he claims, he majored in finance and parties. It took him only four years to get through the Marines. By then he had a wife and three sons, and after a brief stint selling insurance, he jumped at an entry-level position with Fidelity Bank, in Oklahoma City. His eight years there would be his only on-the-job training for heading up Stillwater National -- but he remembers the lessons some two decades later.

As a trainee, he was shuffled through a series of jobs. He worked as a teller, then with the credit department, where he was supposed to make sure that loan applications were supported with all the right documents. Ambitious, he dug out back issues of bank lending journals and studied the proper procedures for making loans. But the bank was growing rapidly, and a lot of his peers weren't going by the book; instead they were "shooting from the hip" and generating a lot of problem loans. Among the hip-shooters: Bill P. "Beep" Jennings, who later became the chairman of Penn Square.

So McCormick wasn't surprised when Fidelity reported big losses in 1963 and '64. But despite the losses, he was impressed with some of the bank's positive aspects. Fidelity's president, Grady Harris, seemed to have a knack for making customers feel at ease. "After a session with Grady," McCormick says now, "they'd want to do business with his bank."

The contact with Stillwater National came in 1970. A commercial bank with $22 million in assets, it was controlled and managed by the Berry family, whose patriarch, James Berry, was a longtime lieutenant governor of Oklahoma. Now James's 49-year-old son Frank, who had been heading the bank, was dead of a massive stroke, and a cousin of the family put the Berrys in touch with McCormick, by then a clean-cut and confident man of 35. The Berrys figured he was just the type of fellow they wanted to manage their small-town bank. They weren't, after all, asking much. He wasn't expected to overtake the number-one local bank, which commanded some 57% of the market; he was only supposed to keep things sound. As George Berry, Frank's older brother, comments, "We didn't want him doing anything too racy."

When McCormick arrived that September, he found a pleasant enough place. Seventy miles from both Tulsa and Oklahoma City, Stillwater was a university town of some 31,000 surrounded by farms and cattle ranches. The bank itself wasn't so pleasant. Its officers "gave the strong impression," as one local businessman put it, "that they didn't want your business." Talking with customers -- and a number of ex-customers -- McCormick caught several earfuls about Stillwater National's aloofness toward the community.

"In those days," confirms Paul C. Wise, an 80-year-old executive vice-president who is still active at the bank, "we rarely took the time to visit customers in their place of business." If they did, Wise adds, they didn't usually take the liberty of suggesting products or services. "It was a totally different atmosphere. If we were going to talk about the business, we waited for customers to come to us." With a high percentage of its assets invested in municipal bonds and other government securities, Stillwater National had the look of a bank that didn't like lending money.

McCormick, recalling the personal style of ex-boss Grady Harris, quickly tried to repair the bank's image. He put his own desk on the main floor and made a point of greeting customers. He spent time out of the bank, talking with people. But his main effort was to begin making bankers out of time-serving employees and wet-be-hind-the-ears recruits -- a process that has since been dubbed the McCormick School of Banking.

When McCormick arrived, few of the bank's 55 employees had been trained or encouraged to make even small decisions on their own. "There was one guy," McCormick remembers, "who'd been here for 12 years and had to get approval to buy a few dozen lightbulbs. And there was only one person in the whole bank who could approve a loan for more than $5,000." That, he decided, would change. He asked Jim Lovell, a man in his early forties who had been making consumer installment loans, to begin learning about construction and real estate lending. He assigned Rick Green, who had worked part-time printing custom checks while completing his undergraduate degree at nearby Oklahoma State University (OSU), to coordinate a new marketing effort.

McCormick also hired several enthusiastic young college graduates with no banking experience at all. Stan White and Tom Bennett, two graduates of OSU in their early twenties, arrived within a few months of each other in 1974. McCormick had them doing everything from keeping the Coke machine filled and locking up the premises at night to going after borrowers who were delinquent on their loans.

Being a student at McCormick's school wasn't easy or glamorous. White once drove back and forth on poorly marked back roads 40 miles from Stillwater in search of a borrower who had moved away and was several months late on a car loan. When he finally located the deadbeat's mobile home, he walked up to the front door and told the man who he was. The customer reached for his shotgun and told the young banker he'd better leave."I agreed with him," says White, who is now an executive vice-president. Chased to his car by two Doberman pinschers and the thought of a shotgun aimed at his back, White has to this day, he says, "no recollection of how I made it."

Bennett, a wide-eyed sociology major when he started at the bank, got another kind of lesson -- less dramatic but equally important to a banker. Despite Bennett's youth, McCormick asked him to supervise the liquidation of a local jewelry store, which had defaulted on its loans. The bank, Bennett remembers, was hoping to recover as much of the money as possible during the Christmas selling season, and by Christmas Eve was "taking every reasonable offer." But even though the inventory was gold and silver, the bank still got less than 60? on the dollar.

"The thing I learned," says Bennett, 35, an executive vice-president who is currently a White House Fellow assigned to the Comptroller of the Currency's office in Washington, D.C., "is that no inventory is worth as much as you think it is, especially on the downside of a business."

To McCormick, such slices of reality were the stuff of which great bankers were made. If you wanted to learn how to lend money, he told his trainees, you had to see the bad sides -- like how miserable it was to collect loans based on collateral. "People promise you all sorts of things," he would say, "but they don't always make good on what they say."

Lurking behind the practical training was another kind of lesson. Every time McCormick sat down and talked with a job candidate, he spelled out his hopes for the bank and for the community. Stillwater, he told them, was going to be more than just a sleepy university town. It could be a regional shopping and medical center, an ideal place to raise a family. And an ambitious young banker could be a catalyst. When a banker made a loan, the impact was there for all to see: a building went up and people went to work. At other banks, job interviews might revolve around job descriptions and salary; here McCormick was selling a vision. "When you talked to Mr. McCormick," remembers White, "you talked about your own goals, and you talked about building a community."

Beyond putting forward the vision, beyond training his personnel, McCormick made sweeping changes in Stillwater National's operations and marketing. That was no small feat, particularly since banks in those days faced serious restrictions on what they could and could not do. They were prohibited by law from paying interest on checking accounts, and they couldn't pay more than 5 1/4% on savings accounts, which was a quarter of a percentage point less than competing savings and loans. Yet a bank's lending business, which was its bread and butter, depended on its ability to attract deposits.

In retrospect, McCormick's motto seems to have been, "Find a new product and market the daylights out of it." For openers, he kept an eye on the nation's most aggressive S&Ls and mimicked their best moves. His Golden Passbook accounts, for example, paid interest on 90- and 180-day savings at the higher rates then allowed for certificates of deposit. And though rates were regulated, service wasn't. So when Golden Passbook customers visited McCormick's bank, they didn't stand in a teller line; they were invited to sit down and discuss their needs with somebody who had been trained to talk about the product.

To find new customers, Stillwater National blitzed OSU. Students opening accounts received coupons for free pizzas and movie tickets. "There were days when we were opening 75 or 80 accounts a day," says Rick Green. "None of our competitors had even attempted to capitalize on that market." In another move aimed at new customers, the bank became the first in town -- the second in the state -- to introduce a 24-hour teller machine.

But McCormick's boldest move into consumer banking came on the lending side, when he began going toe-to-toe with the savings and loans on residential mortgages. At the time -- the mid-1970s -- it was a dramatic move; most commercial banks in those days took for granted the traditional division of labor between thrift institutions and banks, and few were writing residential mortgages on any scale. But the provider of home mortgages, McCormick figured, got the opportunity to offer other profitable services. "In a town like this," he says, "you had to do what an S&L did. We wanted to be in a position to finance a person's home, his car, his business, and just about everything else."

Many commercial bankers, of course, either wouldn't have known how to enter the mortgage business or would have balked at the riskiness of using short-term deposits to originate 20- or 30-year loans. But McCormick had a card or two up his sleeve. He had lent money to some mortgage bankers back in his Oklahoma City days, and he knew that you didn't need to hold on to the actual mortgages to be in the business. All you had to do was understand the ins and outs of a then-mysterious entity called the secondary market. Executives of the thrift industry understood it. Commercial bankers, for the most part, didn't.

Essentially, the secondary market in home mortgages involves packaging mortgage loans and reselling them to investors all over the country. The trick is to follow the technical guidelines of the Federal National Mortgage Association (Fannie Mae) and the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corp. (Freddie Mac), then pull together the complex appraisals and lengthy documents required. The time-consuming nature of the process only made McCormick more eager for the business. "He wanted us to learn the hard things," says Green, "because he felt they'd give us an advantage -- fewer people would be doing them."

Besides giving the bank an important new product, the mortgages provided servicing fees that boosted the bottom line. During its first year in the business, Stillwater National underwrote $1 million worth of mortgages. By 1979, as people got the hang of it, the volume soared to about $10 million. The mortgage trade also brought in new customers. Rick Green stayed in steady touch with local employers, and would call new people before they came to town to see if they needed a mortgage or anything else. Even today, he says, "we'll go out and meet the moving vans when they arrive at a customer's new home."

New approaches to consumer lending, of course, can take a bank only so far. The rest of a commercial bank's operation is its business lending -- and in that department, Stillwater National may be one of the few banks even an entrepreneur could love. Lending officers working under McCormick are expected to turn people away if they have to. But before they do, they better have explored every possibility of a financial package acceptable both to the borrower and to the bank.

Not long ago, for example, the owner of a local hardware store came in looking for $70,000. He needed it to buy more inventory and to complete the buyout of his former boss. McCormick, after some discussion, agreed to make the money available, but in a way that was a lot more intricate than the method proposed by a banker down the street. Instead of one short-term loan, McCormick suggested three smaller loans, each with a different repayment schedule (ranging from 90 days to 15 years). Why? A single loan with a 1- or 3-year maturity, explains McCormick, would almost certainly have brought about a cash-flow crisis.

Bankers trained under this approach are expected to be as imaginative and inquisitive as McCormick himself. But it isn't unusual for McCormick to spot problems the others miss. In a loan review meeting last summer, a 44-year-old lending officer named Scott Gregory proposed a working-capital loan of $350,000 to the owner of an agricultural-equipment company some 90 miles outside of Stillwater. The business, recently spun off by a large midwestern company, had experienced some difficulty, Gregory said, but it had also booked some large orders. To him, it looked to be on the rebound. He had brought along a dozen or so pages of information to support his presentation.

McCormick, however, wasn't satisfied. He wanted to see separate schedules to back up the company's balance sheets. He wanted to know if Gregory had visited the physical premises. (He hadn't.) Had he talked to any of the middle managers, or seen the way the books were kept, or inspected the alleged $188,000 worth of inventory? "Accountants," McCormick growled as he got up and walked away from his chair, "usually aren't tough enough about valuing inventory." That means that bankers have to do their own valuations.

Afterward, Gregory visited the borrower's plant. "They had a good product and operation," he says, but when he got there he found that some of the things McCormick had identified "didn't add up." So the loan application was turned down.

Over time, so rigorous an approach pays dividends measured in customer loyalty. Buster Simon, 38, who started a women's clothing store in 1976, has relied on the bank to finance his seasonal inventory ever since his first year of operation. But he has received, he says, more than just a series of loans. "From the beginning, McCormick asked questions that made me think. . . . He'd want to know how I decided how much inventory I wanted, how I knew that I was in line with my customers, how I chose when to take markdowns, and whether I ws taking inflation enough into account when I thought about buying inventory for the next season." When the business opened a second store in 1981 and immediately ran into a working-capital crunch, Simon says that both McCormick and a new lending officer who had taken over the account were able to understand the problem. "They rode along with us," he says, "and agreed to shift $36,000 of short-term loans into 10-year notes."

McCormick has also encouraged his bakers to develop market expertise and technical abilities ignored by competitors. One niche -- health care professionals -- has become a lucrative lending specialty.

In the past several years, Green estimates, the bank has financed the professional and personal needs of more than two dozen doctors as Stillwater became a regional medical center for north central Oklahoma. Today, he adds, when the bank hears that a young doctor is even thinking of moving to Stillwater, "we'll call him up or go see him."

The Small Business Administration's guaranteed lending programs have provided another lucrative and often-ignored niche. "A lot of bankers turn their noses up at the idea of SBA loans," McCormick notes with amusement. "They don't like the red tape, and they say, 'We don't do marginal loans." But he and other officers saw SBA-guaranteed loans as a way of providing capital to customers they couldn't do business with on any other basis.

Here, too, McCormick figures out how to package and resell the guaranteed loans, just as he had with home mortgages. By tradition, commercial banks only sold loans when the total credit went beyond their lending limit. But a broader secondary market for SBA loans, allowing 90% of a loan to be sold, was just coming together in 1978, and McCormick wanted in. It made sense for borrowers because it allowed longer terms and, in some instances, fixed rates. It made sense for the bank because the loans would generate origination and service fees without tying up scarce funds or capital. And it made sense for the community. As McCormick saw it, selling a $500,000 loan in New York City was much the same as flying to New York and beating the business for deposits. But unlike the latter, the business wouldn't be based just on price; it would trade on Stillwater National's special skills. By 1984, the bank had made 120 SBA-guaranteed loans, totaling $19.3 million, and was selling them to investors all over the country.

One evening last August, Bob McCormick and his wife, Peggy, were at the dining-room table in their one-story brick house, talking about how Stillwater National Bank managed to escape the energyloan problems that plagued so many other Oklahoma banks. To Peggy, it was simple common sense based on hard experience. "My father," she said, "was an independent oilman who lost everything he had. There was a boom one year and a bust the next. If you grew up in Oklahoma, you knew that's how the oil business was." Bob McCormick, relaxing with his tie off after a long day, concurred. "The guys from Penn Square showed us a bunch of oil deals they wanted us to participate in," he said. "But they didn't look right." The bank's board of directors didn't argue with him.

There are other ways, too, in which Stillwater National reflects Bob McCormick's sense of what's right. The bank has rigid -- some would say Puritan -- policies on conflicts of interest. No officers are allowed to invest in local companies. Officers at the vice-president level and about aren't allowed to have loans from the bank. If an officer's spouse is in business, he or she is asked to bank elsewhere. An employee can't be related to another employee at the bank. If two employees marry, one of them must leave.

McCormick's bankers, moreover, always look the part. Even during the energy crisis, when another bank in town turned off its air-conditioning and allowed its employees to take off their coats and ties, McCormick said no, his bankers would dress like bankers and be warm. Nor does he like his people to live in fancy houses or drive fancy cars. "It's as if we're all here in one glass house," explains one officer. "Our customers are looking in."

For his part, McCormick is an avid golfer whose dining-room window faces the eighth hole of a golf course -- but who seldom plays with customers. "If somebody wants to do business with the bank, we'll sit down and have a serious conversation, but they don't have to be my friend," McCormick explains. "We don't always have the best rates in town, but we'll be professional. We'll bust our rears to make the smartest deal they can find."

Today, in the wake of a lingering oil glut and a severe farm crunch, as many as one-third of the banks in the state are running in the red. "We've seen 20 banks go under since Penn Square," McCormick says, and Stillwater National itself has seen its loan defaults rise and its profit levels fall as the regional economy weakened.

Still, the bank has made some impressive efforts to sell money and expertise to a wider universe of customers than ever before.During 1984, for example, Stillwater National opened its first two loan-production offices, one near Oklahoma City and the other in Tulsa. Since the offices opened, the bank has made lots of conventional loans and 37 SBA loans to small-business people, attorneys, and health care professionals. The bank traced some of its new customers -- dentists and doctors, for example -- from old student-account records, while other leads came from a director who is an ophthalmologist in Oklahoma City. Rather than staying home, says Stan White, "we'll go almost anywhere in the state to meet with professionals who need to talk about money."

The bank has also been using its SBA lending experience in creative ways. Designated as one of the approximately 100 "preferred" lenders in the United States by the SBA in March 1985, it has hosted seminars for bankers from all over the state on how to structure deals, and has offered to travel anywhere in Oklahoma to help as the packager. "They are among the very best lenders in the whole country," says Danny Gibb, the SBA's director of the Office of Financial Institutions.

McCormick is evidently not one to rest on his laurels. The bank has recently upgraded its computer system, enabling its personnel to call up customer records for marketing purposes. It has moved aggressively into the student-loan area, and has recently reorganized its credit-card operation. McCormick himself has become much more involved in employee training than he's been in several years. The bank, which today employs about 115 people, has a stated policy of promoting from within, and he has encouraged his senior managers to switch around their job responsibilities and learn parts of one another's areas. He goes to several meetings a week, and often stays late to coach managers on ways to improve loan collections and upgrade their supervisory skills.

To McCormick, who spent several months a few years ago traveling around the country as president of the Independent Bankers Association of America, it's all part of an effort to create an effective financial-services company that can compete with the likes of Merrill Lynch, Citibank, and Sears. "You can hear them rapping at the door," he says. "They're doing deals and they're handling money. It means we'll have to to be sharper and shrewder than we've ever been." Someday, he adds, Stillwater National may grow by acquiring other banks. But he doesn't feel that the substance of what he and his people do will change very much from what they've been doing for years.

"When people do business with us," McCormick says, "they get more than money. We take an interest in the business. A lot of our customers don't have anyone else to bounce ideas off of, so we try to respond. We won't tell a guy how to sell dresses, but we'll help him understand his business a little bit better.

"It ain't easy," he concludes in his best down-home manner, "to teach people to become better financial managers. But if you don't have quality customers, you won't have a quality bank."