Hampden Bancorp (HBNK) in Springfield, Mass., has hired an investment bank to help it explore a possible sale.

The $649 million-asset company said late Thursday that it had retained Sterne, Agee & Leach, making the announcement after it prevailed in a bitter contest with an activist investor.

Hampden's decision comes a year after a nonbinding shareholder vote urged the company to seek a strategic alternative. Hampden said in a press release that it had hired Sterne Agee to show that it "took the vote on last year's shareholder proposal seriously and acted on it and has listened to its shareholders."

Still, the company's shareholders shot down a similar proposal at Hampden's annual meeting on Tuesday. The company scored another victory over its dissident investors when shareholders approved four directors supported by the thrift's management. Shareholders chose Hampden's nominees proposed by Clover Partners, a Dallas hedge fund that owns about 8% of the company's stock.

Shareholders did approve a so-called say-on-pay measure on Hampden's executive compensation, which could limit the pay of the comapny's management next year and in future years. Clover had argued that management was overpaid, which in turn lowered returns for shareholders.

Proxy advisory firms that weighed in before the shareholder vote were split on whether Hampden should seek to sell itself. Institutional Shareholders Services supported some of the dissident shareholders' criticisms, while Egan-Jones Proxy Services sided with Hampden's management.

Hampden emphasized that the decision to hire Sterne Agee does not necessarily foretell a sale.

"No decision has been made as to whether the company will engage in a transaction or transactions resulting from its consideration of strategic alternatives … and no assurance can be given that any transaction or transactions will occur," the company said in its Thursday news release.

Hampden's largest shareholder is an employee stock ownership plan, which controls 10.9% of its shares.

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