After months of relative quiet, South Carolina's aggressive Mid- Atlantic Investors has struck again.

The shareholder activists bought a 5.1% stake in HFNC Financial Corp. in Charlotte, N.C., with an eye toward forcing a merger, according to a filing last week with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

In its standard initial filing, Mid-Atlantic, which is headed by former banker Jerry Shearer and manufacturing executive Jerry Zucker, said it might propose or support candidates for the thrift's board and might push for a sale of the thrift if it believes it would profit.

The investors might also seek permission from the Office of Thrift Supervision to raise their stake above 10%.

Reached by telephone in Columbia, S.C., Mr. Shearer said the two investors were concerned about the HFNC's inadequate profits and excess capital. The $645 million-asset company, which converted to stock form last December, had about $161 million in capital at March 31, yielding an equity-to-assets ratio of 25%. Return on equity, however, was only 5.1%.

Mid-Atlantic sent off a letter to management informing it of the investment and requesting a meeting, but Mr. Shearer said Mid-Atlantic has not taken any other action yet.

"It just depends on how discussions go with management and how willing they are to listen to our proposals," Mr. Shearer said.

Thrift officials could not be reached for comment, but a spokesman told Dow Jones News Service that HFNC doesn't intend to sell to Mid-Atlantic because doing so wouldn't give the best value to shareholders.

Since the two activists began their thrift investing about five years ago, Mid-Atlantic has made a name for itself in the Southeast.

In that time, the duo killed a merger-of-equals between two South Carolina thrifts, forced three thrifts in the state to sell, and won a proxy fight against Augusta, Ga.-based Bankers First Corp. in 1995. Bankers First eventually sold to Birmingham, Ala.-based SouthTrust Corp., netting $5.3 million for Mid-Atlantic.

The latest move escalates the pair's investing activities. The $14.9 million used to purchase the 875,000 shares from July to September is the largest dollar investment Mid-Atlantic has made in its five-year existence.

That reflects newfound firepower at Mid-Atlantic's disposal. The pair recently formed a limited partnership, Mid-Atlantic Partners, to allow others to invest in the fund.

Mr. Shearer said the additional capital from new investors will allow Mid-Atlantic to be active in multiple stocks at the same time.

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