North Carolina's First Citizens Bancshares is trying not to make a name for itself here.
Recognized for its community-based banking strategy in small North Carolina and Virginia towns, the Raleigh banking company is building a different brand in Georgia.
In April, $8.6 billion-asset First Citizens opened Atlantic States Bank, a federal thrift, in the Atlanta suburb of Norcross. It is the first deposit-taking subsidiary in the banking company's 99-year history not to bear the First Citizens name. (A couple of recently acquired banks in West Virginia in the process of adopting it.)
The Georgia thrift has grown to $35 million of assets and taken in $20 million of deposits. It is building 11 branches throughout Atlanta's northern suburbs and has signed a contract to put nine additional branches in Winn-Dixie supermarkets.
Though officials acknowledged that the start-up's rapid growth flowed at least in part from the resources of its wealthy parent, Atlantic States would rather not be associated too literally with First Citizens.
"We really want this to be an autonomous local community bank, not something viewed as another large bank coming into Georgia," said James F. Pope, Atlantic States' president.
NationsBank Corp., First Union Corp., and Wachovia Corp. are all from North Carolina and have come to cast a giant shadow over the Georgia banking landscape, primarily through acquisitions.
Atlantic States uses First Citizens' back office and taps into its advertising and marketing expertise. The parent company has also given it $15 million of capital and more than $10 million to pay for expansion- related construction.
But as far as customers are concerned, Atlantic States is Atlanta born and bred.
"When a lot of larger out-of-state banks came in and acquired community banks, the service tended to diminish," said Mr. Pope. "We want to really focus on good quality customer service, and we don't want to bring another North Carolina name here."
First Citizens' move comes at a time when many other regional banking companies are bent on building their brand identities through extensive and expensive advertising campaigns.
First Citizens is turning that idea on its head. And observers said the strategy may work.
"They've taken a unique approach," said J. Joseph Brannen, president of the Georgia Bankers Association. "With the number of offices they are opening and their aggressive growth plan-nobody else has done anything like that here."
Indeed, First Citizens is not a company given to following the herd. Because it has fewer outside investors than most of its rivals, and therefore fewer analysts following its performance, the company seems to almost take pride in its iconoclastic ways.
"They're about the only bank I know that is happy with a 9% or 10% return," said John J. Mason, an analyst with Interstate/Johnson Lane in Atlanta. Last year its return on equity was 11.35%, its return on assets 0.85%.
Still, the company has shown consistent growth, moving from $5.4 billion of assets in 1992 to more than $8 billion in this year's first quarter. Net income grew 15% in 1996, to $65.5 million, the best annual performance in the corporation's history. It earned $16.6 million in the first quarter, down 1.3%.