Huntington Bancshares Inc. of Columbus, Ohio, should reveal the winning bidder within a month in the planned sale of its Florida banking operations, a deal that could fetch a price as high as $1 billion.
And though it has sworn off big bank deals for the foreseeable future, don't rule out SunTrust Banks Inc. as the winner this time around.
Huntington, which is accepting bids on the 139 branches and related deposits, said it expects to announce a purchaser this month or next, a source familiar with the proceedings said.
Companies that analysts say are likely to be interested in the Florida branches include BB&T Corp., SouthTrust Corp., and AmSouth Bancorp. SunTrust's name is also often mentioned, more so since its bid for Wachovia Corp. failed.
SunTrust spokesman Barry Koling would not comment on whether the company is bidding on the Florida branches. Though SunTrust's chairman and chief executive, L. Phillip Humann, has ruled out doing a major deal anytime soon, Mr. Koling said that should not be interpreted as swearing off acquisitions altogether. "Our eyes are open for opportunistic acquisition opportunities that meet our standards," he said.
Those standards would include deals that expand SunTrust's capabilities without diluting shareholder value or customer demographics, he said. (Company executives have specifically cited retail brokerage as an area of possible purchases.)
The winner of the Huntington sweepstakes would get $4.5 billion of deposits - the state's eighth-largest market share - and a stronghold in the central Florida markets of Tampa, Orlando, and Sarasota. Huntington employs 1,600 people in its branches there.
"That would be a good entry point to get into the state," said Michael Granger, an analyst at J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. "It is a pretty sizable piece."
An analyst who asked not to be named said that, because Huntington plans to sell the branches as a package, antitrust considerations may persuade companies that already have a big presence in Florida, such as Bank of America Corp., to hesitate about bidding.
Huntington has retained Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and Morgan Stanley Dean Witter & Co. as financial advisers for the sale. The source said the sale was progressing with great speed as Huntington continues to restructure its operations to be more focused on the Midwest.
Jeri Grier, a spokeswoman for Huntington, said that so far the company has been pleased with the reaction to its request for bids.
"We have had significant interest" from potential bidders, said Ms. Grier, who declined to identify the parties. "It has met our expectations."
Huntington decided to sell the Florida operation in an attempt to free up funds to improve its capital position. When the company announced the offer last month, its chief executive officer, Thomas Hoaglin, said the Florida branches were not "geographically strategic to our future."
Jennifer Thompson, an analyst at Putnam Lovell Securities Inc., said the Florida market is an "attractive region" because it is one of the few areas ripe for growth in banking. SunTrust and BB&T are two prime candidates as buyers, she said.
"The Southeast, and Florida in particular, is still seeing good growth in the banking business," she said. "I wouldn't be surprised if they were interested in expanding their Florida franchises."
BB&T has been a busy player in the acquisition game. Last month the company announced a $128 million agreement to buy Community First Banking Co. in Carrollton, Ga., one of its dozens of deals in the last decade. A BB&T spokesman declined to comment on whether it would bid for the Huntington branches.
SouthTrust and AmSouth, two Birmingham, Ala., companies, already have a central Florida presence, and they could have an eye on expansion there. AmSouth declined to comment Monday, and SouthTrust officials did not return calls seeking comment.
Huntington says it is moving quickly for a sale so it can add capital to buy back shares. Last month it announced that it would take $140 million of charges during the second, third, and fourth quarters to account for the restructuring, and that it planned to cut expenses by $36 million and slash dividends by 20%.
Mr. Hoaglin, who became the CEO of the $29 billion-asset company in February, said the restructuring efforts came after a string of cost-cutting initiatives and a year of flagging earnings. In addition to the Florida sale, Huntington is consolidating 43 branches in Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, and West Virginia. Branches that are near each other will be closed, the company said.
Brock Vandervliet, an analyst at Lehman Brothers, said he expects "the price to be a whopper," with the buyer paying a 20% premium for the deposits.
"We should see something pretty rapidly," Mr. Vandervliet said. "Huntington wants to move it downfield as quickly as possible."