Star Banc Corp. of Cincinnati said it plans to open 14 supermarket branches in and around Louisville, Ky., in the next four months and another four there in early 1999.

Star, with $14 billion of assets, is moving quickly to expand in Louisville after entering the market in February with the acquisition of $641 million-asset Great Financial Corp., which had 16 traditional branches and six grocery locations.

Charles Stroup, vice president of Star's in-store division, said the company has contracts with 13 retailers. Additional opportunities to open branches are rapidly becoming available, he added.

"Our biggest challenge this year is rationalizing where to go next," Mr. Stroup said.

Star has boosted its number of grocery store branches from two six years ago to 52 today. But the company still trails in-town rival Fifth Third Bancorp. in number of in-store branches.

Fifth Third opened its 100th Bank Mart supermarket branch in Kettering, Ohio, in late February. About one-quarter of Fifth Third's branch network is in grocery stores.

Nevertheless, Mr. Stroup said Star continues an aggressive schedule. It will double its supermarket branches within 12 months, he said.

Fifth Third continues opening in-store offices, as well. A spokeswoman said it plans to open five or six branches in the second quarter.

The moves by Star and Fifth Third are indicative of how popular nontraditional branches have become in the Midwest.

Supermarket banking caught on quickly in the western United States, where Wells Fargo & Co. and BankAmerica Corp. continue to operate the largest number of grocery store locations.

In the Midwest, several banking companies are rapidly expanding their in-store networks. TCF Financial Corp. of Minneapolis, for instance, has 143 supermarket branches.

The Star branches to be opened in Louisville this year will be in three supermarket chains. Nine branches will be in Winn-Dixie Stores, three in Meijer stores, and two in bigg's stores, a unit of SuperValu. Plans call for two more Winn-Dixie branches and two Meijer branches in early 1999.

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