At least a half-dozen Northeastern bank consultants are jockeying to assemble groups of community banks in Connecticut and Massachusetts to bid jointly on as many as 150 branches expected to be sold by Fleet Financial Group.

Following its upcoming merger with Shawmut National Corp., the Providence-based regional is likely to divest branches with $2.5 billion to $4.5 billion of deposits, primarily in the two states, according to Hartford's Bank Analysis Center, one of the consultants. Additional divestitures are also possible in New Hampshire and New York.

The efforts to set up the consortiums are designed to counter the bidding power of such regional rivals as $43.5 billion-asset Bank of Boston or Providence-based Citizens Financial Group, the $10.1 billion-asset subsidiary of Royal Bank of Scotland.

Early this year, Washington-based Hovde Financial Inc., a bank consultant, organized the first successful community bank consortium to bid on a regional bank's branch divestiture. The group of 31 institutions bid on 29 branches in four states divested by Minneapolis-based First Bank System Inc. after its purchase of Metropolitan Financial Corp.

But New England's bankers still aren't committing to join the consultants until they have a precise idea about what is being sold and where.

Fleet is working with the Justice Department and the Federal Reserve and is expected to announce a formal plan this month for selling or closing branches in response to federal antitrust concerns.

"Everyone is sort of poised, waiting on the sidelines for the word to come out of Providence and Boston concerning how much in deposits and what types of loans and which locations," said Bank Analysis Center president John Carusone.

The consultants, who are hoping for a payday for brokering a successful deal, believe that the community bankers would be more acceptable to Fleet as potential buyers if they pool their resources and act together. That would enable them to afford a large block of branches, while reducing the number of parties and the administrative burden Fleet officials would have to deal with.

"We think a consortium format is the only way that a community institution has any chance of being successful because there will be some of the large guys competing on this deal," said Eric D. Hovde, executive vice president of Hovde Financial.

The consortiums would also provide Fleet with an alternative to giving a significant boost to a major rival.

"We're anxious to make (community banks) competitive equals in the post- merger environment," Mr. Carusone said. "This is a one-time opportunity to bid on an expansion program that could materially add value to their franchises."

The center is even trying to draw in a larger, out-of-market bank to act as an anchor tenant for its consortium, which is expected to be dominated by thrifts. That bank would purchase the downtown Hartford deposits and provide more commercial competition for Fleet, while leaving the outlying operations to the community institutions, Mr. Carusone said.

Meanwhile, bankers say more questions than answers remain about how the consortiums will work. They are wondering which institutions will be allowed to join, whether banks will have a competitive edge over thrifts for the deposits, and how the consultants will deal with overlapping desires for the same branches.

"Right now, you've got this huge tree and you can't get your arms around it," said David A. Lentini, president and chief executive of New England Community Bancorp in Windsor, Conn., which has been approached by six different firms. "There's a lot of issues on this thing that aren't very clear."

And even the firms themselves acknowledge that they don't have all the answers yet.

"Until the negotiations over the divestiture are completed, we could be talking about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin," said Peter J. Ostrowski, managing director of Ostrowski & Co. "It's easy to get too far ahead of yourself."

About 80% of the divestitures are likely to occur in Connecticut, where the two institutions have $16 billion of the state's $56 billion of deposits, according to the Bank Analysis Center. The concentration is particularly intense in the Hartford market, where Fleet and Shawmut control 79% of the deposits, Mr. Carusone said.

That could lead to a divestiture of about $2 billion in that area alone, he added.

He estimated that about 60 to 80 branches will probably be sold in Connecticut, with another 10 to 20 each in Massachusetts, New York, and Rhode Island and five to 10 in New Hampshire.

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