Thrifts were the main takeover prey in New England last year.

The region's biggest deal of the year was First Union Corp.'s $379 million purchase of Connecticut's Center Financial Corp. of Waterbury.

The deal consolidates and expands First Union's presence in the state, where it arrived indirectly through its 1995 acquisition of New Jersey's First Fidelity Bancorp.

Besides Connecticut, the New England region includes Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont. The top 10 deals in New England last year totaled $1.26 billion.

Center Financial was advised by Keefe, Bruyette & Woods Inc., New York. The North Carolina-based banking company itself used no investment adviser in the deal.

The second-largest deal in the region was UST Corp.'s $161 million acquisition of Walden Bancorp. Two New York firms, Fox-Pitt Kelton Inc. and PaineWebber Inc., were the advisers.

The region's third-largest deal was the $136 million purchase of DS Bancor, Derby, Conn., by Webster Financial Corp., Waterbury. Merrill Lynch & Co. advised Webster, while Alex. Brown & Sons advised DS Bancor.

Mahwah, N.J.-based Hubco Inc.'s $130 million purchase of Lafayette American was one of the relatively few sales of a New England commercial bank last year. Keefe Bruyette shared an advisory role in the deal with Belle Plaine Partners.

Keefe Bruyette, a firm with a long history in New England, also advised Family Bancorp, Haverhill, Mass., a savings bank, in its $113 million sale to People's Heritage Financial Group, Portland, Maine.

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