A tenacious new Baltimore community bank has begun its promised expansion plan - establishing branches in at least four supermarkets in the Baltimore area.

First Mariner Bancorp, which opened its doors with $25 million of assets in May, would likely be one of the smallest institutions to try supermarket branching. The plan reflects the expansionist zeal of the bank's founder and chairman, Edwin F. Hale Sr., a well-known banker in the area.

"These locations will accelerate the penetration that we already have," said Mr. Hale, who previously served as chairman of Baltimore Bancorp before it was sold to First Fidelity Bancorp. of New Jersey last fall.

"This is exactly where we want to be," he added. "We need to be out there, creating a lot of customer good will."

First Mariner, now with $38 million of assets, plans to set up at least an automated teller machine in 14 Mars Super Markets in the Baltimore metropolitan area. There will be four branches in these sites at first, with the option of building more, Mr. Hale said.

Pending regulatory approval, the branches should be up and running by the fall, the bank said. First Mariner currently has six locations.

"It's been done in the market already, but not by a bank of that size," said Alex C. Hart, an analyst with Ferris, Baker Watts Inc. in Baltimore. "It makes a lot of sense because it's a low-overhead branch with extended hours and greater convenience. I think it will work nicely."

Mr. Hale does not intend to waste any time in expanding First Mariner into an institution with several hundred million in assets. He predicted that by the end of the year First Mariner will have developed into a $100 million-asset bank with at least 12 branches and a risk-based capital ratio of 22%.

Mr. Hart estimated that First Mariner has enough capital now to support a $200 million-asset bank.

"I'm hearing people say that they're going to keep an eye on him," said Mr. Hart. "He brings a businessman's perspective to running a bank, which is a more proactive and decisive management style."

Analysts said other small banks and thrifts in the area will likely begin to feel the pinch from First Mariner's aggressive entry into the market. In addition, those disaffected customers whose banks have been acquired by out-of-state institutions will probably want to do their banking with someone local and familiar like Mr. Hale, they said.

That local flavor is clearly exhibited in First Mariner's board of directors, which includes several local luminaries, including the state's former governor, William D. Schaefer.

As for the bank's branching in the future, Mr. Hale said he has spoken recently with gas stations about the possibility of setting up ATMs there.

Not everyone, however, thinks the supermarket branching idea is sound.

"Are you telling me there are people running around a supermarket without a bank account," said Lew Sosnowik, an analyst at Koonce Securities in Rockville, Md. "Some harried housewife may use an ATM, but to go to the investment of putting people there (in a branch), I don't know. It's risky."

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