Last week in the state, two cross-charter mergers were inked. Such mergers between banks and thrifts were relatively rare until recently. "It didn't matter if it was a thrift or a bank," said Tom Moat, president of Newnan Savings Bank, which said Friday it is acquiring Southside Financial Corp., a bank holding company, in Fayetteville. "The only thing that mattered was that they had the same community-based philosophy." Earlier in the week, First Alliance Bancorp of Marietta said it had entered into a deal to acquire a thrift, Premier Bancshares, of Atlanta. Though Premier is about the half the size of First Alliance, the new $226 million-asset holding company will use Premier's name and its thrift charter. Premier's chief executive, Darrell D. Pittard, will be the president and chief executive of the new institution. First Alliance's CEO, J. Edward Mulkey Jr., will head the holding company that will be formed. The lack of importance given to the acquiree's charter in these two cases illustrates the intensity of the consolidation occurring in Georgia and nationwide, observers said. Healthy assets in a logical market for the growing institution is the primary deal-making criterion, they said. Plus, with Congress debating the demise of the thrift charter, most executives said such charter distinctions likely will have little significance in the future. For the short term, however, a thrift charter in Georgia makes a big difference because it enables the holder to get around restrictive in-state branching laws. A thrift can branch anywhere in the state, but a state bank must buy a whole bank and then convert it into a branch in order to expand into another county. Still, the executives said this benefit did not motivate the deals. The acquisitions simply made sense, whether they were with thrifts or commercial banks, they said. "This is the way the food chain is going to evolve," said David Pulliam, who has followed the thrift industry for Sterne, Agee & Leach Inc. in Atlanta. "A lot of smaller institutions, whether they are thrifts or banks, will get together to form something larger, perhaps eventually getting into the $500 million to $1 billion-asset range." The foray into Georgia by three large Alabama banks - SouthTrust Corp., Regions Financial Corp., and Colonial Bankgroup - has intensified in recent months, spurring more mergers between the smaller institutions, observers said.

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