First Financial Bancorp's (FFBC) M&A bucket has gone from barren to brimming in just a few weeks.

The Cincinnati company — which is sitting on substantial capital thanks to its attractively structured deals for failed banks — agreed last month to buy two open banks that would provide it an entree into Columbus, Ohio. Then on Monday it said it was entering Fort Wayne, Ind., by hiring two lending teams from a competitor.

The deals themselves are modest, involving $500 million of assets, but they represent some delayed promise for First Financial and perhaps the broader M&A market.

Buyers of failed banks are expected to ramp up M&A in the coming years as the benefits of those deals begin to wane and those former buyers seek new ways to grow their earnings and balance sheets. First Financial is a standout among that group.

In truth, it has been for awhile. Its acquisitions of two failed banks in 2009 — Irwin Union Bank and Trust Co. in Indiana and Irwin Union Bank in Kentucky — created $241 million in after-tax gains, and there was an expectation that First Financial was going to quickly use that capital to buy more. It added 40 locations through two branch deals, but otherwise investors have waited four years for the company to announce it would buy a whole bank.

"They pulled off one of the best failed-bank deals, and the market anointed them as a smart acquirer," says Chris McGratty, an analyst at Keefe, Bruyette & Woods. "They had the currency and didn't do anything with it."

It wasn't for a lack of trying, says Claude Davis, chief executive of First Financial. Davis has been vocal over the years about the company's desire to deploy its excess capital. The company also gained industry attention by paying out all of its earnings through dividends for a couple of years to prevent the capital account from getting larger in the absence of acquisitions.

"We've been looking. We've said publicly that we've been looking and it was nice to identify these opportunities," Davis says.

At the same time, Davis says he has not let pressure from investors and others affect his decision-making. "We don't worry or talk about external expectations. … We didn't focus on size as much as we did the market, and we wanted a good growth platform."

Ross Demmerle, an analyst at Hilliard Lyons, says that investors overall were willing to wait because they were pleased with the earnings payout. The company ended the full payout in mid-2013.

"The main topic on conference calls has been capital allocation," Demmerle says. "Once they stopped the payout, the big question was, 'So you're going to make acquisitions now, right?'"

Davis says the company has been looking for the right entry points to key markets it has identified in Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky. Columbus was one of the major markets it wanted to enter, he says. He declined to detail how the acquisitions of The First Bexley Bank and Insight Bank came to be, but said it is keeping tabs on the banking world in the markets it wants to enter.

"Suffice to say as part of our ongoing process to reach out to all the markets where we have an interest, we know the good banks there," Davis says.

The team it announced it would recruit is made up of lenders formerly with Tower Bank (TOFC) in Fort Wayne, which announced in September that it had agreed to sell itself to Old National Bancorp (ONB).

The fact that First Financial is doing something is perhaps more important than the size of the individual deals, says R. Scott Siefers, an analyst at Sandler O'Neill, who highlighted the addition of the lenders in a research note Monday.

"I'm not sure I've ever written about the hiring of a team of lenders," Siefers said in a follow-up interview. "But it is important because it shows momentum, flexibility and optionality for First Financial."

Davis says he is continuing to look for other potential acquisitions, too. Although larger transactions are becoming increasingly popular and First Financial is experienced in large deals — the Irwin transactions doubled the size of the company — Davis says he isn't necessarily looking for a big splash.

"A deal has to be big enough to dedicate the resources and to create current and long-term value, but otherwise there is no minimum," he says. "On the high end, there is a lot more risk. [It] doesn't mean we wouldn't contemplate a larger transaction — you just have to be very aware."

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