Whitney Holding Corp. has finally gotten the retail presence it has wanted along the Gulf of Mexico.

The $4 billion-asset banking company from New Orleans completed its acquisition last month of Merchants Bancshares of Gulfport, Miss., for $52 million in stock.

Whitney gained 13 locations along the Gulf Coast and $208 million of assets. Including Merchants', Whitney has more than 100 banking locations over all.

Moreover, as its first deal in Mississippi, the Merchants acquisition gives Whitney something it has sought for several years: a string of locations from Louisiana across the southern edges of Mississippi and Alabama and into the Florida panhandle.

"With this merger, we've completed an important step in our strategic plan," said Whitney chairman William L. Marks.

Bank officials said the Gulf Coast is particularly attractive because several industries-including shipbuilding, oil and gas, seafood products, and tourism-transcend state lines. The area has become a cohesive region with little variation from state to state.

After taking the chief executive officer's title in 1990, Mr. Marks engineered the effort to transform Whitney from a modest-size commercial bank with 40 branches and no automated teller machines, operating primarily in and around New Orleans, into a regional contender with a stronger emphasis on the coastal areas.

"All of this is in an effort to attract retail business," said Mr. Marks.

He added that he is looking for more banks to buy and "fill in the gaps." He said he is particularly interested in the Destin and Fort Walton Beach areas of Florida.

R. Harold Schroeder, an analyst with Keefe, Bruyette & Woods Inc., said Whitney's growth along the Gulf Coast is a sound strategy. But he and others have expressed concerns about expenses.

Whitney's efficiency ratio remains high, at 66.98% in the first quarter, Mr. Schroeder pointed out. "The issue they have to contend with is their cost structure."

"It's one thing to have a nice, attractive acquisition, but the harder part is after the handshake, being able to cut jobs and streamline back- office operations," Mr. Schroeder added.

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