In choosing to buy a Florida thrift, Society Corp. of Cleveland has wandered far from its roots but has not strayed from convention.

A growing roster of northern banks are expanding their business in the Sunshine State to keep older consumers happy.

"That's where their customers go when they retire," said Kenneth Puglisi, a securities analyst at Chicago Corp.

Society, which already had trust operations in Tampa, West Palm Beach, and Naples, last month bought the $1.1 billionasset First Federal Savings and Loan Association of Fort Myers for $141 million. Society thus won banking powers in the state and can now offer deposit accounts and loans.

Florida has been a magnet for trust bankers and private bankers since the state opened its trust doors in 1982. The pull has intensified over the past two years as northern banks more actively seek the fee income that comes from managing the assets of wealthy people.

Some Major Players

The list of outsiders opening banks or branches in Florida is a veritable who's who of banking.

J. P. Morgan & Co. and New York's United States Trust Co. last year bought Florida thrifts so they could add a full roster of banking services to their trust and private banking offerings.

Chicago's Northern Trust Corp., one of the first midwestern companies to sojourn south, has been rapidly expanding the operations of its Florida bank.

Coastal Differences

Midwest banks tend to settle on the Gulf Coast, catering to retirees who flock down Interstate 75. Eastern banks go to the Atlantic side to greet customers who migrate down Interstate 95.

Analysts, however, are divided about Society's move to buy the thrift. Before the acquisition, the bank in Florida "had nothing else to offer [customers] besides trust," said C. J. Lawrence analyst Michael Plodwick.

A Society spokesperson said full banking powers also allow the bank to offer commercial loans to a number of Ohio companies that have relocated to or expanded in Florida.

Counters Thomas Brown of Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette, Inc.: "I'm going to be interested in a few years for them to show me why that was a productive use of capital."

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