Some prominent Maine community bankers are discovering that discarded branches from larger banks may be more than just scraps.

For the second time in two years, a new bank has opened its doors in the state after taking over offices from a bigger bank that was either trimming operations or fleeing the state entirely.

"We like to think of it as Citibank going local," said Lawrence Connell, president and chief executive of Atlantic Bancorp in South Portland, which opened its doors just over a month ago. "We are the reverse of the interstate consolidations. We're new franchises starting up from what were multinational or superregional bank operations."

Atlantic was started after a group of Portland business and community leaders decided to buy Citicorp's six-branch operation in the state. The New York-based corporation decided two years ago to abandon ship, but was having trouble finding a buyer, said Robert C. S. Monks, an Atlantic director.

Led by Mr. Monks and his father, Robert A. G. Monks, former chairman of the Boston Co., the investors raised $13 million in capital and signed the purchase agreement last March. Atlantic opened Sept. 30 with $230 million of assets, including $190 million of performing loans from Citicorp.

"We're already a presence," said the younger Mr. Monks. "People are already used to coming to us for products. [And] because it's a clean bank, we don't really have any bad assets."

Mr. Connell, who joined the Atlantic team a few months ago, is the former cochair of the watch-dog group Shadow Financial Regulatory Committee and was chairman of the National Credit Union Administration under former President Carter.

A former Connecticut banking superintendent, he is also a consultant and troubleshooter, guiding five banks from the brink of failure to profitability.

Atlantic is following the trail blazed by William Bullock, a former Fleet Financial Group official who started $110-million-asset Merrill Merchants Bancshares in Bangor two years ago from the ashes of seven branches divested by Fleet.

"We're a de novo bank that started specifically as a divestiture," Mr. Bullock said.

The Providence-based Fleet had just bought Maine Savings Bank and Bank of New England in 1991, doubling its size in the state. Regulators forced the company to divest the branches to cut its market share.

In February 1992, Mr. Bullock and 30 Bangor investors started raising $5 million and bought the Fleet branches, with $70 million of assets, $65 million of deposits, and $25 million of loans. The bank opened its doors in October

Two years later, it has surpassed the $100 million mark in assets and tripled its loan pool to $74 million as of Sept. 30.

"Our success has been all at Fleet's expense," Mr. Bullock said, noting that Fleet's deposits in the state have decreased by more than $1 billion in the last two years. "People like a community bank and in this particular case, senior management have all been in banking in Bangor for more than 25 years."

Much of the bank's business is centered around small business loans, which bank officials believe would be ignored by the larger banks. In September, the bank was named a certified lender by the Small Business Administration, the only community bank in Maine with that designation. The only other certified lenders are Fleet and Cleveland-based Keycorp.

The bank even stole its name from Fleet's grasp.

Merrill Trust Co. was a 100-year-old institution in Bangor that was bought by Fleet in 1986, and Merchants National Bank, another Bangor institution that was also more than 100 years old, was purchased by Maine National Bank in 1982.

But Fleet never registered the two names with the state, so there was nothing the Rhode Island company could do to prevent the de novo from grabbing the two names, which Mr. Bullock says has given it an advantage over Atlantic.

"The difference is that Merrill is immediately identified as a local entity for over 100 years," said Mr. Bullock, former chief executive of Merrill Trust. "This was a distinct competitive advantage when starting up than starting with a new name."

But even with the positive reception Atlantic and Merrill have received in the community, Mr. Monks said he doesn't see the same thing happening very often to other new institutions.

"We were lucky," he said. "It's very difficult for investor groups to buy banks. It's very, very competitive with existing banks. You really have to find some sort of anomaly in the system to be able to do that."

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