Fifth Third Bancorp continued a string of small acquisitions, announcing Monday that it would buy Cleveland thrift Emerald Financial Corp. for $204 million.

"This is a nice fill-in acquisition in step with the company's slow, steady expansion plan in the Cleveland marketplace," said bank analyst Fred A. Cummings of McDonald Investments in Cleveland.

Emerald Financial is the parent of Strongsville Savings Bank, which has $670 million of assets, $560 million of deposits, and 15 offices.

Emerald would be merged with Fifth Third Bank, Northeastern Ohio.

After the merger, Fifth Third, Northeastern Ohio, would have 80 offices, and Fifth Third Bancorp would have 485.

Emerald Financial is a "good construction lender" with strong management and profits, Mr. Cummings said. "The company made 131 basis points on assets and 16% on equity last year, which is very respectable."

The Cincinnati banking company said it plans to pay $19.82 a share for Emerald Financial, which many analysts said is a fair price.

"Fifth Third is trading at such a high premium to book and the deal is so small that it will be accretive in the first year," said Mr. Cummings.

Fifth Third expects to complete the deal in the fourth quarter.

Emerald is the third financial institution Fifth Third has bought to expand its market share in the Cleveland area. The others were Falls Financial of Akron, which it bought in 1995, and 1st Nationwide, a Cleveland thrift it purchased in 1996.

The $28.9 billion-asset Fifth Third has three other acquisitions pending: for Enterprise Federal Bancorp, a $544 million-asset thrift in West Chester, Ohio; Ashland Bankshares, a $171 million-asset thrift in Ashland, Ky.; and South Florida Bank, Fort Myers, which has $87 million of assets.

"Fifth Third is always looking to expand cautiously," Mr. Cummings said. He said it does small acquisitions that it can easily assimilate.

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