The expected sale of an estimated 50 Utah branches resulting from the pending merger of First Security Corp. and Zions Bancorp. is attracting the interest of several major banking companies looking to bulk up in the region.

Bidding is expected to be lively, with about $1.5 billion of deposits at stake-enough for a No. 2 market share in one of the fastest-growing states.

Zions and First Security, both of Salt Lake City, unveiled their $5.9 billion merger agreement Sunday and planned for sizable divestitures in their home state to satisfy antitrust authorities.

"There is a lot of retail banking opportunity because of the new wealth" in Utah, said Martin W. Newton, a regional vice president in the state for Wells Fargo & Co. "It's a very diversified state, and it's a good place for a bank to operate."

Analysts estimated the price for the branches would be about $192 million, based on the 12.8% average deposit premium banks paid in large branch divestitures last year.

Several analysts predicted the branches and deposits would be sold in one package, a stipulation that could give a large out-of-state rival a solid foothold against the new First Security Corp.

"You don't want to endow a competitor with the tools to make your life miserable," said R. Jay Tejera, an analyst with Ragen MacKenzie Inc. in Seattle. Community banks would be interested in buying parcels of branches, Mr. Tejera said. If the First Security and Zions branches and deposits are sold as a single bloc, the range of buyers would be limited to large regionals and superregionals.

San Francisco-based Wells Fargo, which already has 24 branches in Utah, is likely to take a close look, Mr. Newton said.

"Those divested branches will be in every single market in this state," he said. "As we have said in past, we want to grow in Utah, and buying divested branches is one way to do that."

Other obvious candidates, analysts said, include U.S. Bancorp of Minneapolis, Community First Bankshares in Fargo, N.D., and Washington Mutual Inc. of Seattle.

U.S. Bancorp has 32 branches in Utah and keeps an eye open for fill-in acquisitions in the West, said John F. Grundhofer, chairman, president, and chief executive officer of the $76.1 billion-asset company.

"We'd be interested in looking, depending on the price," Mr. Grundhofer said in an interview.

Community First president and CEO Donald R. Mengendoth said his $5.9 billion-asset company will take a look at the properties as well, though details are still unavailable as to which branches would be sold.

"We'd be interested in any proposals" to boost a very modest presence in Utah, Mr. Mengendoth said.

Washington Mutual has roughly 30 branches in the state, many inside Fred Meyer discount stores, and it probably would be interested in expanding its presence, analysts said.

First Security holds the top spot in market share in Utah, and Zions is second. After they combine to create a $40 billion-asset holding company, the divested assets would rank second in Utah and Bank One Corp. of Chicago would remain in third place.

Analysts said they do not expect the $250.4 billion-asset Bank One to show much interest in the divestiture, because it has turned its focus from brick-and-mortar to the Internet, said James R. Bradshaw, an analyst with Pacific Crest Securities in Portland, Ore.

Other institutions that may contemplate a purchase include KeyCorp of Cleveland and Pacific Century Financial Corp. and BancWest Corp., both of Honolulu.

Buying into a market that has been dominated by well-known and respected hometown banks carries a risk to out-of-staters.

"Both are so well entrenched in this market that you could see your deposits migrate right back to the new First Security," Mr. Bradshaw said. "Competing against Zions and First Security in Utah is tough, tough business."

Banks already in these markets would have an advantage, because Utah consumers will already be familiar with them, he added.

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