In striking a deal to acquire one-third of Fleet Financial Group's branches in Maine, Bangor Savings Bank is positioning itself to be a dominant player throughout the central and northern parts of the state.

The $898 million-asset thrift last month announced plans to purchase 31 branches from $85 billion-asset Fleet for an undisclosed price. The deal would bring Bangor Savings $292 million of deposits and $186 million of loans and would boost its assets to about $1.2 billion.

"This is a chance to expand quickly into communities we feel we understand better than out-of-state banks," said Jim Dowe, president and chief executive officer of Bangor Savings. "We understand the economy, the politics, the financial issues of Maine as well as anyone."

The deal is expected to close in July. Through it Bangor Savings would pull out from a pack of Maine banking companies similar in assets and deposits to join the leaders in the state- Cleveland-based KeyCorp, Boston- based Fleet, and Portland-based Peoples Heritage Financial Group.

Mr. Dowe said he expects to close six Fleet branches near some existing Bangor Savings branches. The thrift's 40-branch network would extend from Maine's easternmost tip to near the New Hampshire border.

Fleet is following KeyCorp's 1997 move out of Maine's rural markets. But though KeyCorp spread its branch sales among a number of community banks- thereby limiting the market gain by any one-Fleet delivered the lion's share of branches to one institution.

That large chunk is what Bangor Savings has been waiting for.

"We have looked at the other opportunities, but we were waiting for something bigger," Mr. Dowe said. "If you are going to put the resources into converting branches, you can do 26 as easily as you can do seven."

"It makes sense for both sides," said Gerard S. Cassidy, analyst with Tucker Anthony Inc. in Portland, Maine. "Fleet is parting with branches that were not reaching their internal growth targets, and Bangor Savings becomes a demonstratively bigger player in that part of the state."

Mr. Dowe said the deal provides Bangor Savings the size it needs to justify offering new products, such as insurance, but said it will not change the thrift's approach.

"Size is not an issue in terms of how we do business," he said. "We are still a community bank looking for the same customers we have always served."

But competing community banks say bigger is not necessarily better. William C. Bullock Jr. said his $180 million-asset Merrill Merchants Bank, also in Bangor, can win customers from Bangor Savings much as it did from Fleet.

"People in Maine don't like bigness," said Mr. Bullock, who is chairman of Merrill Merchants. "I think that is a lesson the big banks pulling out have learned."

Some of the branches Bangor Saving is acquiring "have changed hands three times already this decade," he said. "Customers get tired of that."

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