Continuing its Gulf Coast expansion strategy, Whitney Holding Corp. agreed to purchase a community bank in Pensacola, its second deal in the Florida Panhandle city in a week.

The New Orleans-based company agreed late last month to buy Liberty Holding Co., which has $51 million of assets, for $14 million in stock, or 2.7 times book value.

A week earlier, Whitney had signed a deal to acquire American Bank and Trust with $60 million of assets, for $10.2 million, or 240% of book.

Both deals are subject to shareholder and regulatory approvals.

But if they close, as expected, in the third quarter, Whitney will possess five branches and a 5% deposit market share in Pensacola.

"That gives us enough presence to compete in that market," said chief financial officer Edward B. Grimball.

Market share for the three dominant players in Pensacola - Amsouth Bancorp., Barnett Banks Inc., and First Union Corp. - ranges from 28% to 12%.

Whitney's move into Pensacola follows its expansion last year into Mobile, Ala., where it now has eight branches. Mr. Grimball said Pensacola, which is within an hour's driving distance of Mobile, represents a natural extension of Whitney's market - the Gulf Coast stretching from Louisiana to Florida.

A major gap in Whitney's franchise remains - Mississippi, whose Gulf Coast region is heavily dominated by Gulfport-based Hancock Holding Co.

Robinson-Humphrey Co. analyst John Coffey said Whitney's strategy "makes sense for them" in that the booming Gulf Coast, spurred by gaming and tourism development, offers abundant loan opportunities for the bank's deposit-rich New Orleans franchise.

Whitney, with $3.5 billion of assets, has been aggressively expanding in the last two years after spending the early part of the decade focused on credit problems. Two acquisitions in Louisiana, in Morgan City and New Iberia, added $300 million in new assets in the southeastern part of the state.

Whitney entered Alabama in February 1995 by purchasing the five Mobile branches of The Peoples Bank of Elba. That acquisition brought Whitney chairman and chief executive William L. Marks back into familiar territory. He had managed Amsouth's operations in Mobile before joining Whitney in 1990.

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