The banking market in the nation's capital, dominated by superregionals like NationsBank Corp. and First Union Corp., has a new small-bank competitor.

George Mason Bankshares, an $800 million-asset institution from nearby Fairfax, Va., recently opened three branches in Washington under the George Mason name. The branches were acquired with the Palmer National Bank by George Mason in late May.

It took advantage of the so-called 30-mile rule, which lets national banks circumvent interstate branching restrictions by moving their headquarters up to 30 miles, even across a state line, then converting the original headquarters into a branch.

In this case, George Mason relocated its headquarters to a Bethesda, Md., branch of the former Palmer National. All George Mason's 20 branches and five mortgage lending offices in the Washington area operate under the same charter and name.

"We are looking to be an acquirer," said Bernard H. Clineburg, chief executive. "And there are still some good potential opportunities in this area."

George Mason is one of the fastest-growing banks in the area, averaging about 25% asset growth annually during most of this decade, said Alex Hart of Ferris, Baker Watts Inc., Baltimore. In the area, comparable banks' average annual growth rate is 8% to 10%, he said.

"The billion-dollar mark is certainly a milestone they are trying to attain," Mr. Hart said, "and I don't hear them saying that they'll quit growing once they hit that mark either."

Just five years ago, the bank had $160 million of assets and four branches. Its growth has been abetted in part by consolidation in the area, which has made available a lot of talented bankers with big-bank experience.

That knowledge should prove helpful as George Mason goes up against its significantly larger competitors, Mr. Clineburg said.

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