Liberty Savings Bank in Wilmington, Ohio, is exiting its home state and selling its 16 branches there to First Financial Bancorp of Cincinnati.

The deal, announced Friday, would more than triple the size of First Financial's branch network in the Dayton market, which President and Chief Executive Officer Claude Davis said is a key area of growth for the $6.3 billion-asset company. The sale would include roughly $346 million of deposits — for which First Financial would pay a 6.41% premium, or $22.2 million — and $143 million of performing in-market loans.

"The acquisition of this branch network and accompanying loan portfolio provides immediate scale and operating profitability in these markets that would otherwise take years to accomplish on a de novo basis," Davis said in a news release.

Liberty did not say why it was selling its Ohio branch network, but the $980 million-asset thrift could be looking to shore up its capital base after suffering heavy losses in its loan portfolio in recent years. In 2009 and 2010, Liberty lost nearly $46 million and in that time has shrunk its assets by more than 35%, according to Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. data. The thrift also has branches in Florida, Colorado and South Carolina.

For First Financial, the deal would be its first acquisition since it acquired three failed banks two summers ago. The sale is expected to close next quarter.

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