Harbor Florida Bancorp, one of the state's biggest homegrown banking companies, is going to shed its mutual status so it can better play the acquisition game.

Michael E. Brown, president and chief executive officer, said the strong market for bank stocks convinced executives of Fort Pierce-based Harbor that it should go completely public.

Mr. Brown said $1.1 billion-asset Harbor could raise a large chunk of capital to use to acquire smaller banks before they vanish.

"We didn't want to miss out on these opportunities," Mr. Brown said.

The conversion is likely to attract interest on Wall Street because Harbor Florida's stock price has been climbing steadily in the past year.

Besides, NationsBank Corp.'s agreement to buy $44 billion-asset Barnett Banks Inc. leaves few significant acquisition targets in the Sunshine State.

"It certainly opens up the possibility that someone makes them an offer they can't refuse," said Samuel J. Beebe, an analyst with William R. Hough & Co. in St. Petersburg, Fla.

Harbor completed its reorganization as a two-tiered mutual holding company two months ago.

Harbor Florida Bancorp is the publicly traded parent of Harbor Federal Savings Bank; actually, it owns 53%, and individual investors own the rest. Harbor's mutual holding company, Harbor Financial MHC, currently owns the majority of Harbor Florida Bancorp.

The two-tiered structure lets Harbor Florida Bancorp buy back stock without being a full public company.

Now that Harbor is planning a full conversion, at least one analyst questioned why it spent the money for the middle step.

The original decision to form a mutual holding company was made to help raise capital for growth, but Mr. Brown and Harbor Florida's board had feared a full conversion would be tantamount to inviting a takeover, Mr. Brown said.

Now the board, having found that operating a quasi-public company wasn't so bad after all, is ready for the next step, he said.

But the company, which wants to remain independent, will withstand takeover attempts, he said.

"A lot of stock is in friendly hands," Mr. Brown said. "If we give them good results we will be around. If we don't have good results, we won't deserve to be around."

Harbor Florida Bancorp stock, which began trading at $10 a share in January 1994, soared to $34 at the end of 1996.

The stock rose to about $46 a share at midyear and then jumped again after the thrift announced its plans to convert to a full stock company. It opened at $55.50 on Tuesday.

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