FLORIDABANK, A JACKSONVILLE-Based thrift, last week became Amsouth Bancorp's latest takeover target in Florida.

The state's healthy growth has been fueling takeovers of small banks for several years, but the buyout offer by Amsouth, a $10.9 billion banking company based in Birmingham, Ala., is its fifth in Florida this year.

Other Alabama regionals already have set up shop in Florida, and the invasion makes sense to J. Malcolm Jones Jr., chief executive of $270 million-asset FloridaBank.

"Florida is one of the country's top five growth states, and Alabama's at the middle of the scale, so we've had a lot of the larger Alabama banks entering our market."

Mr. Jones adds that Amsouth's offer for FloridaBank, which is not publicly traded, was a strong one -- 1.81 times adjusted book value.

Amsouth's offer is in line with most of its other Florida bids -- 1.5 to 1.9 times adjusted book -- though the offer for First National Bank of Clearwater was 2.25 times book.

However, "Clearwater has a very large trust department," Fred Meinke, an analyst at Raymond James & Associates, St. Petersburg.

He added that other regional banks also have been paying for Florida assets with about the same premium that Amsouth has been offering.

"Like any community banker, I was aware that I would eventually have to consider an offer," said Mr. Jones, a banker for the last 20 years. "We're not very closely held -- I'm the largest shareholder with 6% of the shares -- and I have a responsibility to entertain strong offers.

"On the other hand, Amsouth has a great reputation, and they'll provide our customers with more services than we ever could because we're limited by our capital resources."

Amsouth, Mr. Jones adds, "has the largest trust and retail banking operation in Alabama, and they're very strong in mortgage lending -- which is our main business."

FloridaBank is returning 0.79% on assets and a robust 15.26% on equity, but its service area was Amsouth's real interest.

Its seven branches in the Jacksonville area would serve as a "fill-in to enable us to have a viable northern Florida franchise," said Harvey E. Campbell, Amsouth's director of investor relations.

Amsouth's other Florida deals, also pending, would position the banking company in Orlando, in the middle of the state; in Ocala, north of Orlando; and St. Petersburg, on the West Coast.

By virtue of purchases in the late 1980s, it already has a presence in Destin and Panama City, in the panhandle.

Mr. Campbell said Alabama banks, thanks to the state's stable economy, are among the most profitable in the nation.

"However," he adds, "in looking for opportunities to participate in more growth, Florida is very attractive to us -- especially because the demographic projections show the growth will continue."

Mr. Meinke says many large banks -- Barnett Banks Inc, First Union Corp., NationsBank Corp. and SunTrust Banks Inc. -- already have set up shop on the Florida's west coast -- where Amsouth is about to take over St. Petersburg's First Gulf Bank and the Clearwater bank.

|Room for Everybody'

"But there's plenty of room for everybody," Mr. Meinke adds, noting that most people in the sprawling area drive to work -- and that none of the large banks has "overbranched."

Mr. Campbell says Amsouth always makes a strong commitment to communities when entering a new market. David Cates, chairman of the Washington bank rating and data firm Ferguson & Co., agrees.

However, he maintains that there is another side to Amsouth's takeover effort.

"I would think that sheer size does matter in the survival game," he said, "and Amsouth, in order to remain independent for as long as possible, needs to get as big as possible. Their stated goal is subtle -- observing shareholder value, and so forth -- but the latent goal of expansion minded banks is to keep expanding."

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