With Hawaii's economy still slack, the islands' two largest bank companies are finding growth opportunities on the U.S. mainland.

Bancorp Hawaii, known for its reach into exotic markets throughout the Pacific Rim, recently bought four branches and $270 million of deposits in Arizona from H.F. Ahmanson & Co.

Chief executive Lawrence M. Johnson said Bancorp Hawaii, a $13.8 billion-asset company, remains in the acquisition market.

"To round out our presence in the Pacific Rim, a presence in California would make sense for us," Mr. Johnson said in a recent interview. "We are interested in any meaningful opportunities right now, probably something in the next 12 to 24 months."

First Hawaiian Inc., the state's second-largest bank company, has also pushed into the western states. It closed a deal last spring to buy $720 million of deposits and 31 branches, mostly in Oregon, from U.S. Bancorp.

The move followed up on First Hawaiian's initial foray onto the mainland, in April 1995, when it opened an auto lending office in Southern California. It also made a deal last spring to buy a community bank in Washington.

"We're capped out in terms of how much we can grow in Hawaii due to antitrust concerns and our recession," said Walter A. Dods Jr., chief executive of First Hawaiian. "So we're planning a careful and selected expansion into the Pacific Northwest."

Mr. Dods said he hopes that region will supply about 25% of the company's net income by 2000. Currently, it contributes about 10%, he said.

Though the recent maneuvers by the two bank companies appear similar, the institutions have very different strategies outside of Hawaii, analysts said.

Despite Bancorp Hawaii's intention to expand into California, most observers said, $7.4 billion-asset First Hawaiian is more committed to growing in the western states.

Bancorp Hawaii's network throughout the Asian edge of the Pacific - built up during the past 35 years - focuses on foreign exchange and trade finance, which provides nearly 30% of its total income, Mr. Johnson estimated.

Meanwhile, the new Arizona operation, called First National Bank of Arizona, is geared primarily toward lending to small and midsize businesses.

First Hawaiian has most of its offices in Hawaii and focuses on traditional retail banking.

Diane L. Merdian, senior bank analyst at Montgomery Securities in San Francisco, said she looks at Bancorp Hawaii as going to the Asia-Pacific region and First Hawaiian as entering the western United States.

In Hawaii, of course, the two are aggressive competitors, each holding about 40% of the state's deposit market share, excluding government deposits, Mr. Dods said.

Two years ago, First Hawaiian even snared John K. Tsui, one of Bancorp Hawaii's top executives, and made him president.

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