First Citizens Bancshares of Raleigh, N.C., opened its second grocery store branch in Virginia, continuing a push to build a significant franchise in the state.

The $8 billion-asset banking company cut the ribbon on the Roanoke, Va., branch last Tuesday. Its first in-store branch was opened in Blacksburg, Va., in April 1996. A third such branch is slated to open in Lynchburg in October. All three supermarket branches are in Harris Teeter stores.

"The grocery store branches are an important component of our growth strategy in Virginia," said First Citizens regional executive vice president John Francis. "Our customers have told us they want the convenience of being able to bank where they shop, and we're responding to that."

In addition to the grocery store branches, First Citizens is opening two traditional branches this year in Virginia. One is to open next month in Roanoke in June; another, in Vinton in late October, Mr. Francis said.

With the opening of the Roanoke branch, First Citizens will have 17 branches in the state and $319 million of deposits. Also this year, the company moved its credit card operations to the Roanoke area. The company has operated a sales finance office in Virginia for many years.

First Citizens officials declined to comment about their overall Virginia strategy, but it is clear they find the market attractive.

Primarily a North Carolina operation, First Citizens began operating bank branches in Virginia in February 1995 when it acquired a small bank in Lawrenceville. It has been building on that base during the last two years, buying divested offices from NationsBank Corp., Crestar Financial Corp., and First Union Corp.

Indeed, part of the company's growth strategy is to offer big-bank services in small communities largely abandoned by other big names. At the same time, the company said, it is striving to offer community-bank-quality service by maintaining local bank boards and by giving local management operational authority. As a result, most of First Citizens' main rivals in Virginia are community banks, not large regionals.

Overall, First Citizens has 300 branches in North Carolina and Virginia. Its First Citizens Bank and Trust Co. subsidiary has the fifth-largest deposit share in the North Carolina market, behind First Union, NationsBank, Wachovia Corp., and Southern National Corp.

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