A shareholder group at New York's Haven Bancorp is fuming that the thrift company passed up chances to sell to North Fork Bancorp and is demanding that the company find a buyer.

PL Capital, a Chatham, N.J., hedge fund that owns 4.9% of Westbury, N.Y.-based Haven, fired off a letter Monday to Haven chairman and chief executive officer Philip Messina that urged the thrift company to hire an investment banker to explore a possible sale.

The letter was filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission the same day Melville, N.Y.-based North Fork said it would buy Reliance Bancorp in Garden City, N.J., for $352 million and two weeks after North Fork announced it was buying another area thrift, JSB Financial Inc. in Lynbrook, N.Y.

"Reliance's management should be applauded for realizing a significant premium for their shareholders," the letter said.

PL Capital principal Richard Lashley said smaller Long Island thrifts such as $2.8 billion-asset Haven need to consolidate with stronger companies in the New York-area market to become more efficient. He was also strongly critical of Haven's three-year-old supermarket branching strategy.

"Haven needs to be part of the Long Island consolidation," said Mr. Lashley in an interview. "The company is out of sync with its strategy."

Haven began expanding into Pathmark stores in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut three years ago, shortly after it rebuffed merger overtures from North Fork. But shareholders pointed out that expenses relating to the supermarket expansion have so far exceeded the income generated.

In its second-quarter earnings report, the thrift said deposits at the its 60 supermarket branches yielded fee income of $4.1 million, while direct expenses to operate the grocery store sites totaled $6.3 million.

Moreover, some shareholders wonder whether the supermarket strategy will ever provide an adequate return on the investment.

"Shareholders would have been better off if the company had merged with North Fork," said Greg Ramsby, an analyst at DePrince, Race & Zollo, an Orlando-based investment firm that owns 9% of Haven's stock. "Management has vastly underestimated how much the supermarket branches would cost and the time it would take to get the return."

On the basis of North Fork's $570 million deal for JSB, Mr. Lashley suggested that Haven could fetch $36.50 per share in a takeover. Shares of Haven were at $16.75 in midday trading Thursday.

In Mr. Lashley's letters to management, the first of which was dated June 16, he argues that Haven's spending is out of line with that of thrifts its size. For the first six months of 1999, expenses rose 35%, to $40.9 million, compared with the year earlier.

"The expenses will never disappear unless the thrift is put in the hands of a more efficient operator," Mr. Lashley said.

A Haven executive said the company has no immediate response to Mr. Lashley's latest letter.

"The board and management are reviewing the SEC filing and plan to respond to it," said Catherine Califano, chief financial officer at Haven. She said she did not know how soon the company would comment.

Due to still-unrealized earnings from the thrift's supermarket branches, Wall Street has slashed Haven's 1999 earnings per share estimate to $1.33, from $1.63.

James Ackor, a bank analyst at Tucker Cleary Capital Markets in Portland, Maine, said Haven would have been better served by only opening a handful of grocery store branches in its core market of Queens, N.Y., where it operates eight traditional branches.

"They bit off more than they could chew and they choked on the expenses," he said.

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