When Zions Bancorp. decided to name its California operation Bank of California, it chose a name laden with historical significance.

"The new name is a simple and direct reflection of our California super community bank focus," said Robert G. Sarver, chairman and chief executive- designate of Zions' California bank.

The operation, which would have about $6 billion of assets, would combine $5 billion-asset Sumitomo Bank of San Francisco, once Zions' completes a deal to buy it, with two recent acquisitions-$720 million-asset Grossmont Bank of San Diego and $350 million-asset Pacific National Bank of Escondido.

Bank of California would be the fifth-largest bank in the state, according to Sheshunoff Information Services Inc.

Before selecting the new name, Zions queried 800 employees from the three banks.

The fact that Bank of California was once the name for the U.S. subsidiary of another Japanese bank, Mitsubishi Bank Ltd., could help Zions retain customers during and after the transition, observers said.

The Sumitomo acquisition would bring Zions a large Asian-American customer base.

Zions has been worried about hanging on to those customers, who often prefer banking with an Asian-owned institution.

"To the extent that customers still associate the Bank of California name with a Japanese parent, deposit attrition could be minimized," said Joseph K. Morford, an analyst at Van Kasper & Co., San Francisco.

The fact that Tomoyuki Kato, the president of Sumitomo Bank in California, has agreed to become managing director of the new bank's Northern California region is expected to reduce deposit runoff as well.

"Current Sumitomo Bank customers will continue to experience the high level of service and respect to which they are accustomed when the merger" is closed, Mr. Kato said.

Zions often leaves a bank's name and management in place after an acquisition. For example, National Bank of Arizona, Tucson, was bought by Zions in 1994 but retained its name.

"By trying to maintain some local identity, Zions is differentiating itself from the bigger banks," Mr. Morford said.

Creating a brand with a local name also could be advantageous in the context of the merger between Charlotte, N.C.'s NationsBank Corp. and BankAmerica Corp. of San Francisco. Disgruntled BankAmerica customers could leave the post-merger institution because its headquarters will be moved to Charlotte.

"Zions is probably viewing this as a potential to better establish itself as a brand that California-based customers can be loyal to," said Brian C. Hartzer, vice president of First Manhattan Consulting Group in San Francisco.

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