Motivated partly by the expected change in merger accounting rules, Greater Bay Bancorp intends to shift into overdrive its acquisition campaign around the San Francisco Bay area next year.

The $2.5 billion-asset company, based in Palo Alto, Calif., has mapped an ambitious plan to buy four small banks in the first six months of next year, according to investors briefed by company executives.

Four more deals would bring to nine the number of acquisitions made by Greater Bay since it was formed through a merger of equals in 1996. It could also position the bank in new markets such as the North Bay and Santa Cruz.

This year Greater Bay has strung together three transactions with a total value of $121 million in stock. In those deals -- which added $500 million of assets and eight branches -- it acquired Bay Area Bancshares, Redwood City, Calif.; Bay Commercial Services, Hayward, Calif.; and Mount Diablo (Calif.) Bancshares.

Because Greater Bay prefers to account for merger transactions under the pooling-of-interests method, there is pressure to wrap up the deals quickly. In September, the Financial Accounting Standards Board issued a proposal that would prohibit financial institutions from using the pooling method after Dec. 31, 2000, and would require them instead to use "purchase" accounting, which often creates goodwill.

The investor sources said Greater Bay's list of acquisition candidates covers California banking companies with assets ranging from $190 million to $408 million, including Bank of Santa Clara; Bank of Petaluma; Coast Bancorp, Santa Cruz; Northern Empire Bancshares, Santa Rosa; Civic Bancorp, Oakland; SJNB Financial Corp., San Jose; and Bank of Marin. Steve Smith, chief financial officer at Greater Bay, declined to name any of the parties on his shopping list. He did acknowledge that the company wants to bring more banks under its umbrella next year and that the expected accounting-rules change is an impetus.

"We continue to look for good-quality banks to join the family," he said, "and we think there are many banks out there looking for a partner."

Greater Bay is expected to play a strong role in the consolidation of the Northern California market for two reasons. First, it has a reputation as a benevolent buyer because it retains an acquired bank's name, management team, board of directors. Unlike some buyers, Greater Bay has a strong currency to bid actively on banks; its stock had risen 23% year-to-date as of midday Friday, compared with 10% for the American Banker index of top 225 banks.

Some analysts questioned whether Greater Bay's push would pan out.

"Greater Bay always has deals cooking," said Campbell Chaney, a bank analyst at Sutro & Co. in San Francisco. "Whether they get them closed or not is another story."

Joseph K. Morford 3d, a bank analyst at Dain Rauscher Wessels in San Francisco, said the potential targets sound feasible and would be easy for Greater Bay to digest. But he, too, expressed caution.

"It's aggressive, and they need to be careful," he said.

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