Six months after entering Florida through the acquisition of Great Western Financial Corp., Washington Mutual Corp. is planning an expansion in the state.

The Seattle-based thrift, which acquired 119 Florida branches through the Great Western deal, is set to open an additional 24 by the end of 1999.

"We have done very well with Washington Mutual's product line here," said Gwynn C. Virostek, senior vice president and group manager of Wamu's South Florida operations. "We really have a huge opportunity to capitalize upon."

The high proportion of out-of-state competitors has made acquisition targets in Florida scarce and costly, Ms. Virostek said. Because of this, Washington Mutual will expand primarily by building branches, she added.

"The premiums that are being paid for deposits are pretty exorbitant," Ms. Virostek said. "If our modeling and analysis tells us we can have a pretty decent return in a short period of time, it's better for us to go in and build."

In some cases the thrift is even converting old restaurants into branches, she said.

According to analysts, $158.5 billion-asset Washington Mutual scored a remarkable bonus with the acquisition of Great Western's Florida operations.

The market is full of potential customers who can be won over with high- quality service and catchy advertising campaigns, two of the thrift's calling cards.

"It fits their target market perfectly," said James R. Bradshaw, an analyst with Pacific Crest Securities in Portland, Ore.

Wamu's timing was good as well, he added. Being an out-of-state player in Florida is no longer the disadvantage it was several years ago.

Consolidation has swept the state, resulting in a financial services landscape populated primarily by out-of-state institutions.

Indeed, the top 11 institutions in the state are headquartered elsewhere, Mr. Bradshaw said.

BankAmerica Corp. of Charlotte, N.C. tops the list; Republic Security Financial Corp., based in West Palm Beach and 12th in market share, is the highest-ranking institution based in Florida.

"It doesn't matter nearly as much as it once did to be local," Mr. Bradshaw said. "People are becoming more and more used to dealing with global companies in Florida."

The acquisition of Great Western pushed Washington Mutual into the top five among Florida financial institutions, based on market share.

Statewide, the company ranks fourth in deposits, with roughly 4% of the market.

The top three in Florida are BankAmerica, First Union Corp., and SunTrust Banks, in that order.

In the South Palm Beach, Broward, and Miami-Dade area, Washington Mutual has edged out SunTrust to take third place behind BankAmerica and First Union.

Ms. Virostek, who joined Washington Mutual when her former employer Great Western was acquired, said Wamu is in a strong position to increase market share by offering free checking accounts.

With more new customers being drawn into Washington Mutual's fold, branch personnel are beginning to push additional products, such as first mortgages and home equity lines.

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