SOUTHERN NATIONAL Corp. took a bold and chancy step last week by agreeing to buy the largest independent thrift remaining in South Carolina.

The move will dramatically increase Southern National's market share in the Palmetto State - at the expense of a merger-related charge that will about equal its projected earnings for 1994.

Southern National, a Lumberton, N.C-based company with assets of $5.2 billion, made the largest acquisition in its history by agreeing to buy First Savings Bank of Greenville, S.C., for $181 million in stock. First Savings has $2 billion in assets.

The purchase price - equaling 1.74 times the S&L's tangible book value - was aggressive enough to overcome Charlotte-based First Union Corp. and Birmingham's South Trust Corp., according to sources close to the companies. First Union and South Trust officials declined comment.

"They paid a full premium for it - there's no doubt about that," said Christopher Marinac, who follows the company for Interstate/Johnson Lane in Atlanta. "Whether it's excessive is really too early to tell. It's going to be a fu&ction o&regulatory approval and is expected to be completed by yearend.

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