Fleet Financial Group is trying to expand the garment industry financing business it bought last year.

The Boston company's Jersey City-based subsidiary, Fleet Bank, hired Warren K. Mino last month to head its textile and apparel group, which was among the National Westminster Bancorp operations it bought.

"It's an area that we want to continue developing," Mr. Mino said. "It's a niche that's important to the New York marketplace."

Fleet is hardly alone on the bustling streets of the New York garment district. Banks and nonbank financing firms throughout the country are heavily involved in lending and providing factoring services to the industry. And some analysts and bankers say interest in financing the garment industry is growing because mergers are expected among retailers, manufacturers, importers, and exporters of various sizes.

"That's where the opportunities lie," said Mr. Mino. He said he expects moderate growth from his division as garment companies grow larger.

Besides increasing its $2.3 billion exposure to the garment industry in New York, Fleet plans to expand the division nationally. The industry is concentrated along the East Coast, with the busiest locations for apparel in New York and Atlanta. However, Los Angeles is also a hot spot.

Mr. Mino, who had been chairman and chief executive officer of American Investment Bank, Salt Lake City, said Fleet is considering opening offices in Atlanta and Los Angeles.

In New York, Chase Manhattan Corp. is the financing leader for garment companies, a category that includes manufacturers as well as importers.

Mr. Mino, who acknowledges Chase Manhattan's huge presence, said Fleet wants to become the "solid" No. 2 lender in the garment industry. But the company also has smaller, experienced competitors with which to contend in New York.

For example there is $850 million-asset Sterling Bancorp. Sterling has been lending to the garment industry for decades. Louis J. Cappelli said that since he became chairman five years ago he's tried to expand that involvement.

"I recognized the need for a bank like ours," said Mr. Cappelli, who is also chief executive officer. "We've seen banks come and go; we've got a long-term commitment."

In 1995 Sterling opened a branch on 38th Street and Seventh Avenue-the bull's-eye of the garment district, Mr. Capelli calls it. And recently Sterling moved its factoring business and international department to Seventh Avenue to be closer to customers.

"Many of our customers are small and midsize companies that require close and hands-on attention," Mr. Cappelli said. "They could walk in and talk to not only branch people, but also corporate lenders who are on the spot."

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