PHILLIPSBURG, N.J. - Vista Bancorp, under pressure from shareholders to buy or be bought, said Thursday that it has hired the New York investment bank Keefe, Bruyette & Woods Inc. to help it explore opportunities.

The move is a "natural extension" to Vista's business plan, William F. Keefe, its chief financial officer, said in an interview. He said working with Keefe Bruyette will help $700 million-asset Vista maximize shareholder value.

In March, a group of shareholders saying they were unhappy with Vista's earnings growth began a proxy battle to obtain three board seats at Vista's annual shareholder meeting, scheduled for April 26.

The group, led by Lawrence Seidman, has been pushing Vista to hire an investment banker to make in-market acquisitions or look into a sale.

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