JOHN CARUSONE – Move makes sense

A New Hampshire bank that specializes in wealth management has received approval to start a branch in Greenwich, but the name on the sign that will eventually hang at 56 Mason St. is not set in stone.

First Signature Bank & Trust of Portsmouth, N.H., has received approval from the Connecticut Department of Banking to open the branch, but applications are pending in New Hampshire for the bank to be acquired by San Francisco-based First Republic Bank, a private bank and wealth management firm. Although its Web site lists its headquarters as being in San Francisco, records from the New Hampshire Banking Department indicate that First Republic’s headquarters is in Las Vegas.

First Signature is a subsidiary of John Hancock Financial Services, and a spokeswoman for that company said it is still “too premature” to comment on the new branch. According to documents from the New Hampshire Banking Department, First Signature Bank, in late August, also applied to open a branch in Boston.

Information on the acquisition was not available on the California Department of Financial Institutions’ Web site, and a representative from the office had not returned a phone call by press time.

First Signature Bank & Trust was established in New Hampshire in 1985, and, as of June 2004, had assets of more than $478 million. According to its Web site, the bank specializes in serving organizations with a high volume of checking account activity, Automated Clearing House collection and disbursements, and significant wire-transfer volume.

The bank also offers individual checking and money market accounts, certificates of deposit, mortgages and revolving lines of credit.

Because it is largely a wealth management bank, opening a branch in prosperous lower Fairfield County makes sense, according to John Carusone, president of the Hartford-based Bank Analysis Center.

“It doubtlessly will complement its core business,” Carusone said. There is no better market in the country for a wealth management bank, he added. But the area is already home to some of the strongest and most reputable institutions in the world, so success will not necessarily come easily.

“The competition is absolutely fierce and predatory in lower Fairfield County,” Carusone said.

First Republic Bank’s mission is similar to First Signature’s. A spokesman for First Republic would not comment on the acquisition, but First Republic announced the deal in an Aug. 3 press release. The acquisition will allow the bank to expand its existing private banking, private business banking and wealth management operations. The bank already has three offices in New York’s Manhattan area and two loan production offices in what it calls the “Boston-New Hampshire” region.

According to the press release, First Signature, a wholesale bank, is expected to have about $400 million in liabilities consisting primarily of certificates of deposit and its assets are expected to consist primarily of cash.

“The acquisition of First Signature Bank & Trust may help First Republic Bank expand its franchise in an area which has a growing number of clients,” said Jim Herbert, president and chief executive officer of First Republic Bank, in a prepared statement.

First Republic now has 30 offices in California, New York City and Las Vegas.