TWO OF NEW ENGLAND'S largest bank companies appointed senior merger-and-acquisition strategists in the past two weeks, testifying to the inevitable consolidation that is coming to the struggling region's bank universe.

Shawmut National Corp. last week appointed John R. Berger, an executive vice president, to a new position as director of its merger and acquisition team. A few days earlier, Bank of Boston transferred James J. Pearl, who was chairman and chief executive of its Connecticut bank subsidiary, to sit full time on its four-person acquisition committee.

Bank of Boston and Shawmut -- along with Providence, R.I.-based Fleet Financial Group -- are preparing to feast on the scores of small and medium-size institutions that have been crippled by the New England economy.

For several years, Fleet has had an open field in New England as its chief competitors were trying to unravel their own problems. But the new M&A appointments at Bank of Boston and Shawmut "obviously show that they have willed their way back to health," said J. Christopher Flowers, a partner who runs the banking M&A practice at Goldman, Sachs & Co.

He and the bankers themselves said that the next few years will be crucial in determining the reach of the larger banks in their home region.

"For Bank of Boston, mergers and acquisitions is a line of business," said Peter Manning, chief financial officer of the $35 billion-asset company.

Bank of Boston, which formed its merger group a year ago, recently bought Hartford's Society for Savings Bancorp and has approval to buy Multibank Financial Corp. in Dedham, Mass. Mr. Manning said his company continues to search for banks, thrifts, trust companies, consumer finance companies, and loan portfolios inside and outside New England.

Honing Takeover Strategy

At Shawmut, Mr. Berger's appointment is viewed as significant evidence of the company's desire to fine-tune its acquisition strategy. Mr. Berger, a 20-year veteran of the bank, most recently headed bank investments and funds management.

Shawmut executives have said that over the next two to five years, consolidation in the Boston area in particular and New England in general, is bound to accelerate. The company, which has $25.3 billion of assets, has a deal pending to enter New Hampshire by purchasing New Dartmouth Bank.

Fleet. which emerged as New England's largest banking company when it swallowed the failed Bank of New England in 1991, has had a 10-member merger and acquisition team in place since 1982.

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