One year after launching a thrift subsidiary in Georgia, First Citizens BancShares, Raleigh, N.C., is using the charter to expand into Florida.

The $9 billion-asset company said it will use its Atlantic States Bank subsidiary to open at least 16 branches in South Florida during the next year. The first branch is slated to open in August in Fort Myers.

Atlantic States, using the unrestricted branching powers associated with its federal thrift charter, is the banking company's vehicle of choice for expansion into other states, said James F. Pope, the First Citizens executive who runs Atlantic States.

"We can use Atlantic States as a way to identify and enter high-growth markets anywhere," he said.

First Citizens founded Atlantic States in April 1997 and based the unit in Norcross, an Atlanta suburb. Armed with $45 million of capital and other resources from its parent, Atlantic States has since opened 11 branches in the north Atlanta metropolitan market and grown to $130 million of assets.

Six more branches are to be opened in the Atlanta area this summer, and another six are planned for openings by early next year, Mr. Pope said.

Atlantic States' ambitious expansion strategy is meant to give First Citizens a presence in select, fast-growing markets throughout the Southeast, Mr. Pope said.

Mr. Pope has installed Kevin Hagan, a onetime colleague of his from the former Barnett Banks Inc., as president of Atlantic States' new southwest Florida region. Mr. Hagan, 33, was most recently a senior vice president/branch administrator for SouthTrust Corp. in Sarasota, Fla.

Atlantic States-the only major banking subsidiary in First Citizens' 100-year history not to bear its name-is designed to give people the look and feel of a small, start-up community bank, but it offers products, technology, and service associated with regional banking companies.

The thrift, for instance, offers a menu of cash management services, such as international letters of credit, that small community banks typically cannot, said Mr. Pope. First Citizens has built its company on serving small communities, mostly in North Carolina and Virginia. As it has grown, it has struggled to retain the community bank image.

In Atlantic States, First Citizens says, it has found the medium for reconciling image and growth. "It's answering the question, How do we be small and big at the same time?" said Christopher J. Bubin, a First Citizens spokesman. He declined to comment on how soon First Citizens expects Atlantic States to start turning a profit.

Peter Davidson, a consultant at Speer & Associates, Atlanta, said Atlantic States is probably trying to reach banking customers "disaffected" by rapid market consolidation.

"People start to get frustrated, and they have to make a decision about where they want to take their banking business," he said. "I'm sure that is their thought process-to try to fill a hole in the marketplace."

But he questioned such a venture. Rapid expansion into new markets is contrary to a traditional community banking model in which profits are built on longstanding ties to communities and customers.

"People have not been successful so far opening up tons of little offices," Mr. Davidson said. "When push comes to shove and they have to start making money, are they actually going to be able to do it?"

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