In a rare move, a southern New Hampshire thrift is acquiring a $50 million-asset commercial bank to make it the fourth-largest stock institution in the state.

Peterborough Savings Bank said it will buy Concord-based Horizon Banks Inc. for $4 a share, or about $6.56 million. Horizon is the holding company for Horizon Bank and Trust Co.

The merger is expected to close in the second quarter of 1995, creating a $345-million-asset company with $23 million of equity.

"That's a terrific opportunity for them," said Michael Cerato, vice president of investments with First Albany Corp. in Nashua, N.H. "It fits perfectly into their market. There would have been other banks interested in Horizon. Horizon had an attractive franchise that will help Peterborough grow and improve its franchise."

Merger activity has been brisk in New England throughout the year, but few deals have involved thrifts buying banks.

This is $295-million-asset Peterborough's first acquisition of a healthy institution, but not its first involving a commercial bank. The thrift bought a failed commercial bank in September 1991.

Although chartered by the state as a savings bank, Peterborough's management has been jettisoning its thrift image through a determined effort to focus on commercial lending.

The company continues to originate some portfolio mortgages, but has de-emphasized its secondary market business because of heavy competition from nonbank rivals.

"The traditional savings bank mortgage market has become a commodity market," said Peterborough president and chief executive Christopher J. Flynn. "Except in some niches, it's very hard to compete on that level. But small businesses still want to have a relationship with people and that's the way we've been driving our business."

At the end of 1992,- Peterborough became a certified lender of the Small Business Administration. The thrift brought in a team of commercial lenders, which have generated $21 million in new business loans so far this year, compared to $7 million for the same period of 1993.

The thrift won't have to change to a commercial charter, however, because state charters in New Hampshire allow banks and thrifts to perform essentially the same functions.

Mr. Cerato said he expects Peterborough to continue looking for merger opportunities in nearby markets, but he doesn't see it looking out of state into Vermont or Massachusetts right away, even though the thrift's market area borders on Massachusetts.

"They will look to expand their market share on a block-by-block basis," Mr. Cerato said.

The abundance of small banks in the region is driving the merger binge, Mr. Cerato said.

"You get beyond New Hampshire and there's going to be continued consolidation in New England and we're fight in the middle of that," Mr. Cerato said. "If you want to connect Maine and Vermont, you have to go through us. If you want to go down the coast from Maine to Boston, you have to go through us."

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