A Cleveland thrift, hoping to attract customers turned off by big bank mergers, is expanding beyond northeast Ohio for the first time in 60 years.

Third Federal Savings and Loan Association of Cleveland said it plans to open four offices each in Columbus and Cincinnati in January. They would start out as loan offices but would be expanded into full-service branches within a year. The company said it expects to have 30 to 40 employees in each city.

Third Federal, the nation's largest mutually owned thrift, with $5.8 billion of assets, said it hopes to compete by aggressively pricing its loans and deposits. It offers some of the lowest interest rates for mortgages and some of the highest rates on savings accounts in its area.

But Third Federal said it also wants to sign up those who may be angered by the loss of a local bank to acquisition.

For example, Columbus-based Banc One Corp. is moving its headquarters to Chicago as part of its merger with First Chicago NBD Corp., and Cincinnati's Star Banc Corp. is to move its headquarters to Milwaukee as part of its merger with Firstar Corp. Third Federal's chief executive said he expects these moves to make some customers available.

"It's a perfect market opportunity for someone," said Marc A. Stefanski, chairman and chief executive officer. "I think what's happened is, a lot of folks don't know where to turn. They don't know they have a choice."

However, competitors in Columbus and Cincinnati said they are skeptical that Third Federal will be able to eat into their business. "It would be very difficult for a company to get recognition in this market because there is a high level of competition," said John Russell, a Banc One spokesman.

Star Banc officials declined to comment, and Roberta Jennings, a spokeswoman for Fifth Third Bancorp of Cincinnati, said her company welcomes the competition from Third Federal.

The thrift had considered moving into new markets for years but only recently developed the computer systems and procedures to expand product distribution.

Third Federal, which was founded by Mr. Stefanski's parents in 1938, is the largest first-mortgage originator in Ohio. It has a large presence in the state's northeastern part, around Cleveland and Akron, and is responsible for 20% of mortgage originations in that market.

Mr. Stefanski said Third Federal has "a serious competitive advantage as the low-cost provider," an edge it achieved by sticking to its core franchise. The company does nothing but take deposits and make mortgages. It has checking accounts but no automated teller machines.

Even its chairman calls Third Federal an anachronism in today's business environment. Mr. Stefanski described his company as a 1990s version of George Bailey's building and loan association in the film classic, "It's a Wonderful Life."

He bristled when asked whether he would consider taking his company public as many thrift operators have done in the past 20 years. That would be an option "if we get to the point where we just want to make money," he said. "But we're building a company to last."

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