A midsize Illinois thrift holding company has hired an Ohio investment banking firm to help it decide whether it's time to buy or to sell.

Charter Financial Inc., a $390-million-asset holding company in Sparta, has retained Charles Webb and Co. to help the company develop a long-term strategic plan, which may include putting Charter Financial up for sale.

"We just need a good game plan," said John A. Becker, Charter Financial's president and chief executive officer. "We don't want to see the progress die." Mr. Becker said he has received calls from parties interested in acquiring his company, but he described the inquiries as "not very serious."

Charter Financial has acquired one branch and two banks in the last three years, absorbing these offices into its operations while maintaining above-average efficiency ratios. The efficiency ratio measures the cost to produce $1 of revenue. The company has also paid generous dividends and bought back shares of its stock to deploy excess capital.

Charles Webb and Co., a division of New York investment banking house Keefe, Bruyette & Woods, has steered Charter Financial through some of those capital-deployment steps, including two stock conversions and an acquisition.

The board of directors' decision to call on Charles Webb again came without any pressure from shareholders, Mr. Becker said.

"I've never had a call from an unhappy shareholder," he said. The holding company's stock has appreciated from $10 per share when Charter Financial converted in late 1995 to about $20 per share today.

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