BB&T Corp. is setting goals worthy of the southeastern superregional it has become through acquisitions outside its North Carolina base.

One is to establish itself as one of the top five banks in Atlanta over the next few years, said chief executive officer John A. Allison.

Winston-Salem-based BB&T, with $35 billion of assets, would get only a foothold in the Atlanta area when itcloses its pending acquisition of $421 million-asset First Citizens Corp. of Newnan, Ga.

Mr. Allison hopes to build a bigger presence by buying community banks, preferably with at least $250 million of assets. If it cannot get banks that size, BB&T would consider buying smaller companies.

"Our preference would be to do mergers," Mr. Allison said. "If in two years we haven't been able to expand, we'll open de novo offices."

Atlanta, with its robust economy and many small and middle-market companies, needs a midsize bank, Mr. Allison said. The four biggest there- BankAmerica Corp., SunTrust Banks Inc., Wachovia Corp., and First Union Corp.-hold about 70% of the area's deposits.

To sneak into the top five, BB&T would have to overtake SouthTrust, which has $3 billion of deposits, or 7% of the market.

Mr. Allison is confident BB&T will do well in Atlanta. It already competes with Atlanta's biggest banks elsewhere and has made a habit of following big competitors such as BankAmerica and First Union, both of Charlotte, N.C., into other markets.

"Having grown up in North Carolina and having to compete with much bigger competitors, we've been successful in going to other markets where those companies are expanding," said Mr. Allison. "We've had great success when midsize banks have gone away. We're going in behind those mergers and picking up business."

BB&T is most competitive in vying for small-business loans. Its $11.5 billion commercial portfolio includes $2 billion in loans to businesses with less than $1 million in annual sales.

Most of BB&T's commercial clients have less than $50 million in sales.

The bank has the largest deposit share in North Carolina, third-largest in South Carolina, and sixth-largest in Virginia. With its deal for $1.1 billion-asset Mason-Dixon Bancshares of Westminster, the company would be No. 8 in Maryland.

Mr. Allison wants to be among the top five in each market. It is looking for deals in existing markets and in Tennessee and West Virginia.

Though BB&T generally buys banks with no more than $2 billion of assets, Mr. Allison said he would now be interested in buying a company with up to $10 billion.

BB&T has averaged four bank deals a year for the past 10 years. The company also has been an active acquirer of insurance agencies.

David M. West, an analyst with Davenport & Co. of Richmond, Va., said Mr. Allison has acknowledged he would like to buy the largest remaining independent bank in Virginia, $9.6 billion-asset First Virginia Banks Inc. of Falls Church.

In an interview last week, Mr. Allison would only say "it's a very good company . ... I understand they're committed to staying independent, and we're a friendly acquirer."

Mr. West said he believes BB&T will be more focused on community banks. "They could integrate them easier," he said. Such deals "also have a lower risk profile."

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