St. Louis-area community banks struck it rich two years ago when Charlotte, N.C.-based NationsBank Corp. bought Boatmen's Bancshares.

Uneasy about banking with an out-of-state giant, thousands of former Boatmen's customers rushed to smaller, locally owned banks such as Allegiant Bancorp and First Banks America.

But analysts predict that Firstar Corp.'s planned $10 billion acquisition of Mercantile Bancorp.-St. Louis' largest bank-is unlikely to create the same kind of customer runoff. Milwaukee-based Firstar is viewed as more customer friendly than NationsBank, which has since merged with Bank of America Corp.

Timothy Willi, a bank analyst at A.G. Edwards in St. Louis, said the Firstar-Mercantile deal is "not going to be the shot in the arm" for local banks that the NationsBank-Boatmen's merger was. "A lot of community banks aren't going to like having a good competitor in town."

Moreover, customers in the St. Louis market have become desensitized to mergers, said Joseph A. Stieven, a bank analyst with Stifel Nicolaus in St. Louis. Since 1997 two of St. Louis' largest banks-Boatmen's and Magna Group-have been sold to out-of-state giants. Two others-Mark Twain Bancshares and Roosevelt Financial-were acquired by Mercantile.

"Customer loyalty has diminished," Mr. Stieven said. These days, he added, consumers care more about interest rates than local ownership. "Customers will move for a quarter point. It's that simple."

The merger wave has clearly benefited local community banks. Allegiant's assets, for example, grew $100 million in the 12 months after the Boatmen's acquisition, said Shaun R. Hayes, president of the $620 million-asset company.

Some community bankers acknowledge that it will not be as easy to attract customers away from $38 billion-asset Firstar, which announced its deal for $36 billion-asset Mercantile late Friday.

"They are different because they are very disciplined on price and on returns," said David W. Kemper, chairman of $10.6 billion-asset Commerce Bancshares of Kansas City, Mo. "We think they'll be a very tough competitor."

Others contend this is a prime chance to win Mercantile customers who still value relationships with their bankers.

"People still view banking as a person-to-person business," said Andrew Baur, chief executive of $1.4 billion-asset Mississippi Valley Bancshares in St. Louis. "I don't think that's changed."

Allegiant is gearing up to court Mercantile customers. In the coming weeks it plans to roll out an advertising campaign stressing its local roots and offering "relief for merger victims."

"This is a small, parochial town, and a Milwaukee bank won't play well here," Mr. Hayes said.

If there is fallout, Mr. Willi of A.G. Edwards said, Mississippi Valley, the parent of Southwest Bank, probably will be a chief beneficiary because of its emphasis on serving entrepreneurs.

"Mississippi Valley is the premier small-business lender in this market, and they work that angle really hard," he said.

Commerce Bancshares also is planning to make a run for Firstar's commercial customers. Commerce, which operates about 70 branches in the St. Louis area, will stress its full-service product line and super-community- bank feel.

"A lot of this comes down to execution and quality of service," Mr. Kemper said. "As these organizations get bigger, it gets tougher and tougher for them to get in touch with the market."

The swallowing of Mercantile has other implications for community banks.

In this decade Mercantile has been one of the Midwest's most active buyers of community banks, often paying high premiums. Its acquisition by Firstar-which has shown little interest in buying small banks-leaves fewer options for banks looking to sell.

"People in smaller markets better realize that the days of getting bought out at three times book value are gone," Mr. Stieven said.

Mr. Willi said, "If you're the owner of a community bank, you've really missed the prime opportunity to sell."

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