BankUnited, one of a handful of large independent institutions left in Florida, is buying rivals in what may be a strategy to sell itself.

The Coral Gables-based federal savings bank, principal subsidiary of BankUnited Financial Corp., agreed Friday to acquire $102 million-asset Consumers Bancorp, Miami, for roughly $11 million in cash and stock.

"We are not for sale, but we are not not for sale," said Samuel A. Milne, the thrift's chief financial officer. "If someone made us an offer we couldn't refuse, we would not refuse it."

The BankUnited management team, led by chairman, president, and chief executive officer Alfred Camner, has sold off a banking company before. Mr. Camner, who is also chairman of the holding company, was general counsel of CSF Holdings Inc., Miami, in 1995, when it was sold to NationsBank Corp.

BankUnited could be targeted because there are so few attractive candidates left in Florida, according to Samuel J. Beebe, bank analyst at William R. Hough & Co., St. Petersburg, Fla.

The state's largest bank, $40 billion-asset Barnett Banks Inc. of Jacksonville, announced Aug. 29 it would be acquired by NationsBank, Charlotte, N.C. Just three banks and five thrifts with more than $1 billion of assets are left in Florida.

While nowhere near Barnett's size, BankUnited is the second-largest banking company based in the state, trailing only $2.7 billion-asset BankAtlantic Bancorp, Fort Lauderdale. BankAtlantic officials have repeatedly said they have no interest in selling.

That may not be the case at BankUnited, which has more than doubled its assets in the last year, to $2.1 billion from $824 million. In March the thrift bought $28 million-asset Bank of Florida, Miami. Last November it purchased $400 million-asset Suncoast Savings and Loan Association, Hollywood, Fla.

"This is a bank that has been priming itself for a sale from day one," said Ken Thomas, a Miami-based independent bank analyst and consultant. "It is opening branches, buying branches ... bulking up for a deal."

Analysts suggested two North Carolina banks, Wachovia Corp., Winston- Salem, and First Union Corp., Charlotte, as well as Union Planters Corp., Memphis, Tenn. and Colonial BancGroup, Montgomery, Ala., as potential buyers.

Of those four, First Union has the most overlap with BankUnited, Mr. Thomas said. Wachovia, Union Planters, and Colonial only have toeholds in the state and would probably be interested in keeping BankUnited's 15 branches in place.

But BankUnited probably will not look to sell until late 1998, when its assets reach $3 billion, said Richard X. Bove, bank analyst for Raymond James & Associates in St. Petersburg.

When the Barnett deal is completed, out-of-state companies will control more than 80% of Florida deposits.

Still, Florida continues to grow its own community banks. "You would have thought Florida would have nothing left," Mr. Bove said, "but the state keeps coming back, and community banks keep sprouting up."

Seven applications for start-up banks have been filed this year, according to the Florida State Banking Department. That compares with 10 charters in 1996, six in 1995, and only four in 1994.

And the state expects there to be even more new banks next year, according to Doug Johnson, an assistant director at Banking Department.

Mr. Bove said Florida can support so many new banks because its population continues to grow.

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