California's Westamerica Bancorp. announced it will close 12 branches of newly acquired Vallicorp Holdings in addition to the two already scheduled to shut. If approved, the closings would culminate a 47% reduction in Vallicorp's branch network.

The Fresno-based bank had shut eight offices between the announcement of the Westamerica deal and its completion last Saturday, and another five have been or are being sold.

If regulators approve all the closings, 22 branches of Fresno-based Vallicorp will have been shuttered since the merger was announced last November, according to state banking department records. Another four branches have been sold to nearby Pacific State Bank, Stockton. And a fifth is being sold to Sentinel Community Bank in Sonora.

That sale and the latest closings would trim Vallicorp's original 58- branch network to 31. Officials of San Rafael-based Westamerica said Vallicorp had planned to close 10 branches regardless of the merger.

However, community groups in at least three towns are hoping to derail Westamerica's plans. Residents of Firebaugh, Lamont, and Mendota have few if any banking alternatives to their Vallicorp branches, and they have filed regulatory protests against the planned closings. In Firebaugh, Bank of America operates a branch but is seeking to close it.

E. Joseph Bowler, a senior vice president at Westamerica, said no further branch closings are anticipated. Overall, Westamerica officials expect to cut about 40% of Vallicorp's overhead and hope to reap the benefits within two quarters, he said.

The cost cutting by $3.8 billion-asset Westamerica, while expected as part of the merger, was reminiscent of the recent branch closings and divestitures by San Francisco's Wells Fargo & Co. after its purchase last year of First Interstate Bancorp, Los Angeles. Westamerica is no longer a small community bank, and its recent moves show that the determined cost- cutting dogma of the superregionals is making its way down to the smaller institutions, whose chief executives were not surprised by the Westamerica branch closings.

"Since the economy has remained relatively flat," said Bart Hill, president and CEO of San Joaquin Bank, "you find small community banks very concerned about their efficiency ratios and mirroring many of the cost- cutting measures that larger banks have pioneered." San Joaquin competed with Vallicorp in Bakersfield.

"People are realistic about the consolidation going on in the banking industry today," Mr. Bowler said. "We still think the branch is very important, but there are lots of alternatives to bank other than through the branch."

The affected branches are in 17 central California communities. Hardest hit are the cities of Bakersfield and Fresno, where a total of six offices- including Vallicorp's former headquarters-already have been closed, and a seventh is scheduled to shut.

The closings might be a boon to smaller banks such as San Joaquin that do business in the affected communities and hope to draw in customers or employees feeling cut adrift by the merger. "Mergers have been very good news for local banks," Mr. Hill said. "I would expect that that would also be the case with this merger."

United Security Bank in Fresno, for one, has hired 11 former Vallicorp employees.

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