With the raising of its first signs on Florida branches last week, Wachovia Corp. has officially and visibly begun a bid for brand recognition in the Sunshine State.

Wachovia did a ceremonial sign-lighting at sunset at a West Palm Beach office Aug. 26, nine months after completing the first of its two Florida acquisitions.

Last weekend Wachovia signs sprouted on 39 branches from Melbourne to Fort Lauderdale as the company completed converting the former 1st United Bancorp. of Boca Raton and Ameribank Bancshares of Hollywood.

The Winston-Salem, N.C., banking company is relatively small in Florida- at about $1 billion of assets in four counties. The company ranks below sixth place in each of the markets where it is competing and is dwarfed by North Carolina rivals NationsBank Corp. and First Union Corp.

Still, Wachovia officials are relishing their growth opportunities.

"In the scheme of where Florida fits into the whole Wachovia organization ... it's small," said Stanhope A. Kelly, executive vice president, consumer financial services. "But it's rich with opportunity."

Further Florida expansion "is one of the higher priorities for us," he added.

Mr. Kelly said plans for Florida include expansion of the consumer network in high-growth areas, a push into the affluent market, and a variety of commercial lending activities. The company has opened commercial loan offices in Jacksonville and Tampa despite having no retail operations there.

Wachovia is eager to make more investments in Florida and is working on a plan to do so, Mr. Kelly said. All options are on the table, including more small acquisitions, new branches and niche-business offices, and a sizable acquisition of or merger with a big Florida player.

The company has bid on some former Barnett Banks Inc. branches that new owner NationsBank Corp. is selling. But Wachovia does not know yet how its bid has fared.

Observers said Wachovia should reap some benefits from its Florida strategy but they do not expect a major impact on revenues.

"It's hard to imagine that it will be wildly material" in the short term, said Moshe A. Orenbuch, an analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. "But it could over time be a good franchise for them."

Mike Ancell of Edward Jones said Wachovia "would like to be a lot bigger than they are. But they have been beaten to the punch by the bigger North Carolina banks. It's going to be a very slow ground game for Wachovia."

Wachovia officials acknowledged the road is uphill but they resolved to stay on it.

"This is not a megabank, but it is a framework we can build on fairly substantially," said D. Gary Thompson, Wachovia's senior executive for Florida and Georgia.

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