A growing North Dakota community banking company is buying its first bank holding company in Arizona, initiating what could be a string of acquisitions there.

Community First Bancshares, a $4.3 billion-asset company based in Fargo, said it would acquire Phoenix-based Republic National Bancorp. in a stock swap. Community First would exchange 375,000 shares of its common stock for the one-branch, $53 million-asset company. Based on the North Dakota company's Friday share price of $40.75, the deal is worth $15.3 million.

Should the Republic National deal close during the fourth quarter, as expected, Community First will have acquired its first full-service bank in Arizona. The banking company already operates a loan office in Phoenix.

Donald R. Mengedoth, Community First's chief executive, said his company's move into the Phoenix banking market is a switch from his usual strategy. The company has acquired banks primarily in rural markets in eight states to date.

He said Community First was attracted to Republic National because the Arizona company specializes in small-business lending, a sector of the market Mr. Mengedoth said he believes has been underserved since mergers have diminished Arizona banks.

Marilyn Seymann, president of the Phoenix bank consulting firm M One Inc., said she expects Community First's emphasis on community banking to win over customers in the Phoenix market.

"This is still a community that values the small bank and the handshake," said Ms. Seymann, who has been consulting for Community First for about a year.

Once the Republic National deal is completed, Ms. Seymann and Mr. Mengedoth agreed, Community First should seize other acquisition opportunities in Arizona's rural markets. Mr. Mengedoth said his company had already missed an opportunity to buy Wells Fargo & Co.'s divested branches in Arizona because it lacked a state banking charter.

Community First would secure a state charter in the Republic acquisition.

The North Dakota company may move quickly to expand its Arizona foothold. Mr. Mengedoth said at least one bank with a large presence in Arizona has spread the word that some of its branches are for sale.

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