A pair of 11-year-old southern Florida thrifts are joining forces to take on bigger competitors.

BankUnited Financial Corp. of Coral Gables said last week that it intends to buy Suncoast Savings and Loan Association in a tax-free stock swap valued at about $29 million.

The new company would have $1.3 billion of assets, making it the fifth- largest publicly traded financial institution headquartered in the state.

"This makes sense - small banks' getting together to defend themselves against big ones is a valid strategy," said Richard X. Bove, analyst at Raymond James & Associates Inc., in St. Petersburg, Fla.

Large out-of-state banks - such as NationsBank Corp., First Union Corp., SunTrust Banks of Florida Inc., and Barnett Banks Inc. of Jacksonville - dominate the Florida banking scene, controlling about 70% of the deposits, analysts estimated.

What's left is a hotly contested thrift market, particularly in southern Florida, whose infusion of wealthy retirees makes it one of the most attractive banking markets in any state.

The deal comes just a few months after BankUnited raised about $24 million in a stock offering to expand its operations in surrounding counties.

Alfred R. Camner, BankUnited's chief executive, is well versed in southern Florida banking. He served as general counsel of CSF Holdings Inc. of Miami from the late-1970s until it was sold to NationsBank last winter. The chief executive of $4.5 billion-asset CSF was Charles B. Stuzin, Mr. Camner's law partner in Miami.

The affiliation is important, some observers said, because BankUnited is employing some of the same strategies that CSF did, including full leveraging through several layers of preferred stock.

The complicated capital structure required the Suncoast deal to be accounted for as a purchase, rather than the more popular pooling-of- interests form.

One result is that BankUnited would have to write off goodwill against earnings, but officials expect the deal to be accretive to earnings for the 1997 fiscal year.

BankUnited, which started on the western coast of Florida but now operates solely on the eastern coast, went public in 1985 at $6.87, and SunCoast opened at $5.09 later that year. BankUnited's price has risen only about 40 cents, and SunCoast's only about $1.

"Neither's shareholders have gotten rich," said Samuel J. Beebe, analyst at William R. Hough & Co., St. Petersburg. "Hopefully the two together will make a better organization."

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