Moving to becoming a major player in Utah, BancWest Corp. of Honolulu announced Tuesday that it would buy 68 divested branches from the merging First Security Corp. and Zions Bancorp.

BancWest, which owns First Hawaiian Bank and San Francisco-based Bank of the West, said it would pay about $230 million for 60 branches in Utah and eight in Idaho. The price tag includes a 9.8% average premium for $2.1 billion of deposits and roughly $40 million for the branch facilities. BancWest also would buy about $660 million of loans.

The move would boost BancWest, which operates three branches in Utah, to the second-biggest banking company in the state behind the post-merger First Security. "This is a unique opportunity in a fast-growing region that fits in with our western acquisition strategy," said BancWest chairman and chief executive Walter A. Dods Jr.

Analysts disagreed about what kind of competitor BancWest would prove to be against the new First Security, which is expected to complete its merger late this quarter. Some considered the 9.8% deposit premium a bit low, reflecting potential difficulties for the $16.7 billion-asset BancWest in retaining customers at the purchased branches.

"If the branches were to have sold to a U.S. Bancorp or a KeyCorp or someone else who could have made a real go at the new First Security, the buyer would have had a better chance at retaining a lot of customers," said R. Jay Tejera, an analyst at Ragen MacKenzie Inc. in Seattle. "One has to wonder what value BancWest can add for these customers to make this work; I suspect you'll see them with their hands full hanging on to what they bought."

However, others pointed to BancWest's success in the Pacific Northwest as evidence that it will do well in the Utah deal, which is to close in the second quarter. The company in 1996 bought 30 branches and $720 million of deposits in Oregon, Washington, and Idaho from Minneapolis-based U.S. Bancorp, which was required to divest the branches after buying West One Bancorp.

"To their credit, First Hawaiian took those branches and built a successful franchise around them," said Joseph K. Morford, an analyst at Dain Rauscher Wessels in San Francisco. "They see a similar opportunity here."

In an interview Tuesday, BancWest president Don J. McGrath said his company has ample experience in doing battle with large banking companies - such as Wells Fargo & Co. and Bank of America Corp. - in California.

"Competing with large banks is right up our alley," said Mr. McGrath, who also is president of Bank of the West. "While Zions and First Security are fine banks and will be successful with their merger, our service and product equation will be a good alternative."

BancWest said it would offer jobs to all of the workers in the 68 purchased branches.

Zions and First Security put the branches on the block in December after the Justice Department required the divestiture as a precondition for approving their merger. The two companies also announced Tuesday that they would close 39 branches - 14 in Utah, 12 in Nevada, nine in Idaho, and four in California - and shift the displaced accounts to nearby offices.

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