Valley National Bancorp, a speeding New Jersey acquisition machine, is headed for another deal, the third it has announced since the middle of last year.

Its latest target is $661 million-asset Lakeland First Financial Group Inc. in Succasunna, N.J., which it will buy for about $124 million in stock, or about 230% of Lakeland's June 30 book value.

The deal strengthens the $3.7 billion-asset corporation's presence in several affluent counties outside of New York City. It will also bring Valley's assets to $4.4 billion.

Valley's 62-branch network currently stretches across the northern part of the state in eight counties. And executives plan to focus future growth on northern New Jersey.

"We have no interest in expanding to New York or Pennsylvania at this time," said senior vice president John Harris.

Under the terms of the agreement, each of Lakeland's 3.9 million shares will be exchanged for 1.225 shares of Valley stock. Lakeland also gave Valley an option to acquire 1.25 million shares of Lakeland's authorized, but unissued common stock.

The merger is expected to be completed in the third quarter of 1995.

Valley was able to offer the high price because its strong earnings and low overhead have driven up its stock price to the $26 range, said Elizabeth A. Summers, first vice president of Ryan Beck & Co.

"When they decide they want something, they can afford to offer a higher price without diluting their own earnings," she said."If Valley really wants it, Valley's going to get it."

The merger announcement came one day before Valley closed a deal to acquire $55 million-asset American Union Bank of Union, N.J.

That deal, in turn, had been announced in November, days after the Wayne, N.J.-based holding company bought Rock Financial Corp., a $190 million-asset bank headquartered in North Plainfield. Rock had five branches in three counties.

The acquisitions are part of Valley's strategic plan to grow its northern New Jersey market through acquisitions of strong community banks and thrifts, Mr. Harris said.

"We continue to look at viable acquisition or merger candidates that are strong financial institutions in their own right and that will add overall value to our franchise," Mr. Harris said.

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