New England community bankers are anticipating a business windfall from the megamerger between Fleet Financial Group Inc. and Shawmut National Corp.
They're expecting to acquire scores of divested branches and attract dozens of disgruntled customers from the creation of the $81 billion-asset giant, which will be the ninth largest in the nation.
"I think if we open the windows a bit, we could hear them (community bankers) cheering about it," said Peter J. Sposito, president and chief executive of the Bankers' Bank of the Northeast. "I see it clearly as an opportunity for them to capitalize, for them to build market share. This is a situation where a community bank can do its thing."
Richard D. Driscoll, president of the Massachusetts Bankers Association, said the deal has "a lot of implications for branch networks, for markets, for customers. It has everyone's attention."
To head off possible antitrust action by the government, Fleet plans to lay off about 3,000 workers and close or sell almost 200 branches, with about $3 billion in deposits.
Community bankers are thrilled because the merger gives them a new chance to acquire key branch sites they couldn't get before, Mr. Sposito said.
The prices are also likely to be right, he continued, because some of the buildings are only suited for banking, eliminating many alternative buyers.
Branch closures or sales are particularly likely in areas of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and New Hampshire where the two institutions have competed head to head, such as Boston and Worcester, Mass., observers said.
"I can think of dozens of locations where they're virtually on opposite sides of the street," said Stanley Lukowski, president and chief executive of Eastern Bank Corp. in Lynn, Mass. "If they're selling any in any markets that we're interested in, we're going to be very interested in acquiring them."
People's Heritage Financial Group of Portland, Maine, will also eagle- eye branches up for sale, said spokesman Brian Arsenault.
"We're interested in expanding our New Hampshire franchise, so we'll look at any opportunity to make a sensible purchase," he said.
Many of the divested branches may also be in suburban and rural areas that only had three or four branches to begin with, said Donald J. McGowan, president and chief executive of Flagship Bank and Trust Co. in Worcester.
"There's going to be an important need for community banks to pick up whatever void's left there," he said.
The merger also means a good chance for community bankers to attract retail and business customers unhappy about the sudden upheaval in their banking relationships.
"No matter how good and how smooth they attempt to make the merger, there's going to be some customer disruption as they close offices and shift loan officers, and it's going to create some real opportunities" for small banks, Mr. Lukowski said.
That's because community bankers believe they can attract those customers by touting their stability, local roots and decision-making, and familiarity with the community.
"Small banks feel that they're in an excellent position to compete," Mr. Driscoll said. 'They're not concerned about (the merger) in any way."
It will also be easier for the community bankers to attract customers because Fleet and Shawmut employees will be distracted by an uncertain future, said Peter J. Baxter, president and chief executive of CFX Corp. in Keene, N.H.
"It's hard to fight the banking war in the trenches from day to day when you're not sure what your position is going to be," he said.