New York Community Bancorp's agreement to buy Richmond County Financial Corp. of Staten Island for $802 million, announced late Tuesday, came after a string of deals announced in recent months as buyers big and small viewed New York City and the surrounding region as ripe for consolidation.

And with several larger banking companies still interested in expanding in the region, there may be a scramble to get deals done soon. "The fact is, there is going to be a significant uptick in the amount of activity," said Joseph R. Ficalora, the chairman, president, and chief executive officer of $4.7 billion-asset New York Community in Westbury.

Several large players are worried about being left behind, but they need to make their move soon, he said. "It will be too late if they wait until 2002 and 2003 because the market may be so absorbed and consolidated by banks that they just can't get access."

New York Community, formerly Queens County Bancorp, is experienced in the consolidation game.

The company was created in November when Queens County bought $2.9 billion-asset Haven Bancorp of Westbury. It owns six banks with 86 branches throughout the New York metropolitan area, including Long Island, Westchester County, Staten Island, Queens, the Bronx, and nearby parts of New Jersey and Connecticut.

The deal for Richmond County, was announced late Tuesday and is scheduled to close in the third quarter. It would add 33 branches - 16 on Staten Island, where it has a 21% deposit share, 16 divided evenly between northern and southern New Jersey, and one in Brooklyn.

Though the deal would not bring New York Community into any new markets, it would shore up its position as a leading New York-area player as competitors vie for pieces of the sizzling retail market.

Last month Citigroup Inc. announced an agreement to buy European American Bank, which, along with its roster of retail customers, would also bring some expertise in small-business and middle-market lending.

North Fork Bancorp of Melville, which also had its eye on EAB, announced a plan to buy Commercial Bank of New York the same week as the Citi/EAB deal. North Fork would nearly double its retail branch presence in Manhattan by acquiring Commercial.

Commerce Bancorp of Cherry Hill, N.J., said this month that it plans to open more than 30 branches in Manhattan in the next five years. FleetBoston Financial Corp, meanwhile, has also made known its interest in the New York region, most significantly with its deal for Summit Bancorp of Princeton, N.J.

This is only the beginning, according to Mr. Ficalora and industry observers.

"There's going to be a tremendous amount of activity in the New York market," Mr. Ficalora said.

Citi's deal for EAB shows that outside players could be shut out of the market if the in-market acquisition trend continues, he said. "If the large in-market players start buying other in-market banking operations, that means those banks they acquire will no longer be available for out-of-market players."

The New York region has long been attractive to banking companies, given its wealthy, numerous, but condensed population, and analysts said the market is especially alluring now.

Kevin T. Szocik, an analyst at Keefe, Bruyette, & Woods Inc. in New York, said deal activity is likely to pick up as the industry remains fragmented and banks' currency gets stronger. He said he expects to see deals that roll up smaller companies, and, like Mr. Ficalora, he doesn't completely rule out "larger out-of-market buyers' coming into the region to get a foothold."

Mark Fitzgibbon, an analyst at Sandler O'Neill & Partners in New York, said a number of factors influence the trend toward consolidation, including the large number of banking companies in the metropolitan market, which he estimated at 139, including many that are overcapitalized.

"When you have one or several transactions in a market, it often prompts people to action and creates a sense of urgency on the part of institutions considering purchasing other institutions - they want to move quickly to secure the right partner," he said.

New York Community seems to be acting on cue.

According to the 2000 Census, Staten Island and Queens had double-digit population growth in the 1990s. The deal would make New York Community second in market share on Staten Island and fifth in Queens.

The deal will be accounted for as a purchase. Richmond shareholders would get 0.68 of a New York Community Bank share for each share of Richmond they own.

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