Mack I. Whittle Jr., who built the largest bank based in South Carolina, has set his sights on Florida.

Last month Mr. Whittle's Carolina First Corp. announced deals to buy two Florida banks with a combined $300 million of assets. Mr. Whittle said the bank merger boom has left business owners in northeast Florida with fewer borrowing options.

"We've developed a niche-lending to businesses too big for community banks to handle but too small for the big ones to notice," said Mr. Whittle, president and chief executive officer of $2.7 billion-asset Carolina First. "The Florida market, with all its turmoil, is just calling out for a bank to handle those needs."

He is hardly the first banker to view Florida as a land of opportunity. Since the beginning of 1997, 28 start-up banks and thrifts have opened in the state, all with dreams of filling voids in the small-business lending market.

But Mr. Whittle, 50, has experience on his side.

In the 1980s out-of-state companies gobbled up many South Carolina banks. "There was consolidation, and more consolidation, and consolidation of those who were consolidated," Mr. Whittle said. "I would guess that 80% of the deposits in South Carolina changed hands in the mid-1980s."

In fact North Carolina National Bank, a predecessor of BankAmerica Corp., bought his employer, Bankers Trust of South Carolina, in 1986.

He formed Carolina First the same year.

"Mack's theme to customers was: 'These big North Carolina banks are coming down running their businesses differently than we do,'" said Christopher T. Kelley, an analyst with Morgan Keegan & Co. in Memphis. "The message generated a lot of interest."

Two years ago, having established itself statewide, Carolina First began looking afield for growth.

At first discussions focused on the Interstate 85 corridor, which links Atlanta, Charlotte, and Raleigh, N.C. The strategy is well tested-the North Carolina giants took that path when they began building their multistate empires.

But before Carolina First made a move, another bank's deal caught its eye. In August 1997, NationsBank Corp. (now BankAmerica Corp.) announced plans to buy Barnett Banks Inc., the leader in the Florida market.

"When I heard of that deal, I said 'There it is!'" Mr. Whittle said. His company turned its attention south, past Georgia to Florida.

Carolina First plans to do business in Florida as Citrus Bank, one of the banks it is buying. (The other is Citizens First National Bank of Crescent City.)

Though Citrus' headquarters are in Orlando, the focus of the Florida expansion will be Jacksonville, where Mr. Whittle said he believes BankAmerica is most vulnerable.

Barnett was based in Jacksonville and held nearly 40% of the deposits there before NationsBank bought it. "That number is unheard of," Mr. Whittle said. "Our sense is that they will lose 15% even if they do everything right."

Mr. Kelley of Morgan Keegan said Florida presents "a real opportunity . .. for someone to get a successful community bank up and running." The state "has just been walloped" by big mergers, he said.

Carolina First intends expand Citrus Bank by building branches.

Mr. Whittle predicted that First Carolina will hit $5 billion of assets in a few years, thanks largely to the Florida initiative. But some say the company may have a hard time duplicating its South Carolina success in Florida, since plenty of other banks are eyeing the state and many alrady do business there.

Carolina First is "not alone in wanting to be in Florida," Mr. Kelley said. "There are a lot of de novos, and a lot of other banks have moved into those markets."

But Mr. Whittle insisted he will have advantages. With Carolina First's resources behind it, Citrus Bank will be able to offer higher lending limits than startups and other small banks, he said. And by retaining the Citrus Bank name and management team-Citrus president Randy O. Burden would run the Florida subsidiary-Carolina First will be positioning itself in the middle ground as a big but local alternative.

"We have been playing that middle for a long time, and we know it well," Mr. Whittle said.

Besides, he insists, he will not have to dominate the market Florida in to make money there.

"Jacksonville alone has half the deposits as all of South Carolina," he said. "A couple of percentage points in that market is a lot of business."

One concern among analysts is that Carolina First's growth will come at the expense of earnings, which have not been strong. The company has not returned more than 0.95% on assets or 11.62% on equity in any of the past five years.

"At some point, earnings have to be considered," said John B. Moore, senior vice president at Wachovia Securities Inc. in Charlotte. "If they had a fairly serious base in Florida, it might add to value. But establishing that base is going to divert a lot of money from the bottom line."

Despite less than eye-popping returns, Carolina First has managed to appease analysts with a series of shrewd investments.

In recent years it has funded start-ups that develop high-tech banking products, such as telephone banking and automated loan scoring software. Most notably, in 1996 it invested in Atlanta Internet Bank, now called Net Bank, an on-line venture developed by bank consultant T. Stephen Johnson of Atlanta.

Carolina First ran the back-office operations and provided a charter and start-up capital. In return it received access to the technology developed; Carolina First customers are now being offered on-line banking services that rely on the Net Bank software.

The South Carolina company also remains the largest shareholder in Net Bank. It is a "really wonderful" investment, said Deborah Beylus, analyst with JW Genesis Capital Markets in Boca Raton, Fla.

Morgan Keegan's Mr. Kelley agreed. "Net Bank is a home run," he said.

But those successes will not matter if the Florida strategy flops. In that case, Mr. Kelley said, "we could all generate a list" of potential buyers.

Mr. Whittle said he has an exit strategy but does not think he will need it.

"There is no dominant super community bank in that part of Florida," he said. "We think we can be that bank."

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