Time is running out for New York's Ambanc Holding Co.
Under terms of an agreement with an activist shareholder last summer, the $670 million-asset company has until April 1 to find a buyer.
Last August, Amsterdam-based Ambanc clashed with shareholder Seymour Holtzman over its proposed purchase of in-town rival, Afsala Bancorp. Mr. Holtzman, who owned shares of both companies, asserted that Ambanc could better provide for shareholders as a seller than a buyer.
Mr. Holtzman eventually gave the Afsala deal his blessing but at a price. Ambanc agreed either to find a buyer by April 1999 or let Mr. Holtzman appoint two people to its board of directors.
Soon after, Ambanc hired Sandler O'Neill & Partners of New York to evaluate its options. But with the deadline fast approaching, the company has offered no hint of its plans.
"It's not an issue we can discuss publicly," said Ambanc president and chief executive officer John M. Lisicki in an interview last week.
Mr. Holtzman, though, said he has heard rumors that the company is negotiating a sale.
"My understanding is, there were some interested parties," he said. However, he said, he has not spoken to anyone from Ambanc and doesn't "know what the extent of the interest is."
"It's been pretty quiet," said Kevin T. Timmons, an analyst at First Albany Corp. in Albany, N.Y. "There are a lot of companies that I would think could be interested, but I have heard few meaningful rumors."
Mr. Timmons said the thrift's market could make it difficult to find a suitor. Ambanc closed its deal for Afsala in November, creating a 19-branch institution. Thus, most of its business is in Amsterdam, which is "a typical, slow-growth, upstate New York city," he said.
"Banks can make money there," Mr. Timmons said, "but it is not a rapidly growing area" that would attract a high premium.
If a buyer does not emerge, Mr. Holtzman said, he is willing to work with the thrift's officers to improve the company's performance. Through September, Ambanc's thrift subsidiary returned just 0.31% on assets and 3.53% on equity, according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.
"The key is to get management to think like owners," Mr. Holtzman said, adding that he considers Mr. Lisicki to be "a very capable guy."
He said that, if no buyer is found, he intends to name himself to the board.
"I have never been on a bank board before," he said. "I would welcome the chance."