Acquisitions have played a significant role in the growth of F.N.B (FNB) and People's United Financial (PBCT), and their chief executives say they remain on the lookout for deals that would add heft in important markets.

Though both say that organic loan growth and expense control are their top priorities, they are also eager to accelerate their banks' expansion in markets where they are relative newcomers and view acquisitions as potential options.

The $31 billion-asset People's, of Bridgeport, Conn., has made five acquisitions in New England and metropolitan New York in the last few years and its chief executive, John Barnes, says he continues to cultivate relationships with smaller banks in those markets so that they will keep him in mind when they are ready to sell. Barnes is particularly focused on boosting People's visibility and market share in metropolitan New York and Boston, two cities where the bank says it is "underrepresented."

"If someone decided to sell we hope we would be one of the preferred acquirers," Barnes said Wednesday at an investor conference in Boston hosted by Keefe, Bruyette & Woods.

Speaking at the same conference, Vincent Delie, the CEO at Hermitage, Pa.-based F.N.B., said he is setting sights on growing in the Cleveland and Baltimore regions. F.N.B. has deals pending in both markets — it is buying PVF Capital (PVFC) in Solon, Ohio, and Annapolis Bancorp (ANNB) in Maryland — and Delie said his $12 billion-asset company has the wherewithal to do more.

"Our strategy is to [grow] in major markets that look a lot like Pittsburgh," where F.N.B. has the No. 3 market share, he said.

Delie stressed that there is no sense of urgency to make another acquisition and that it has no interest in a deal that wouldn't be accretive to earnings within a year.

Like Barnes, Delie said that attracting more commercial customers is crucial to increasing profits. They not only need loans and keep large deposits in their accounts, but their executives often need private banking and wealth management services, Delie said.

Trimming overhead is also high on bankers' to-do lists.

F.N.B consolidated 37 branches last year as it crept over the $10 billion-asset mark and, in turn, became subject to caps on interchange fees that affect all banks over that threshold.

People's United's Barnes has set an ambitious goal of lowering the company's efficiency ratio to 55% by the end of next year — it was at 63.1% at Dec. 31 — and it, too, has been aggressively cutting expenses. It sold 14 of its branches last year and that, among other initiatives, helped reduce its overall expenses by $35 million in the fourth quarter when compared to the prior year.

To make sure it stays on task, the company in late 2011 established a three-person committee to oversee all aspects of expense management. "This is not a project or initiative -- this is our life's work," Barnes said at the KBW conference.

Still, People's continues to hire new lenders and establish branches in desirable markets, including a flagship branch it opened in Manhattan in December, in its ongoing effort to increase revenue. And if the right deal comes along, Barnes said, People's "is well-positioned to be opportunistic."

"We're trying hard not to depend on [deals]," Barnes said. "If it happens, we'll do it because it will have a positive impact for shareholders."

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