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First Financial to enter Columbus market

First Financial Bancorp announced Wednesday acquisition plans for Columbus that would allow the Cincinnati-based bank to enter the central Ohio market and grow its presence statewide.

First Financial leaders said they signed a definitive merger agreement to acquire The First Bexley Bank, a single-branch bank in the Columbus, Ohio, suburb of Bexley. The deal is valued at approximately $44.5 million.

“The Columbus market is one that we’ve identified for the last several years as a market that we’d like to expand into and we were just looking for the right way to do that,” First Financial Chief Executive Officer and Chairman Claude Davis said in an interview with this news outlet.

First Bexley, founded in 2006, has “been very successful, they’ve had very good growth and they’ve proven over the last few years to be one of the most profitable banks in the state of Ohio,” Davis said. “They have a culture that’s consistent with ours in approach to clients and their community.”

The deal is pending regulatory and shareholder approval. First Financial expects to close the purchase sometime in the first half of 2014, Davis said.

First Financial, with $6.3 billion in assets, is the fifth largest bank by deposits held in the Cincinnati metropolitan, and eighth largest in the Dayton metro, according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.

The bank’s footprint covers Indiana, Kentucky and Ohio, and the new acquisition plans will grow First Financial’s presence in the buckeye state. Other major Ohio-based banks include Cincinnati-based Fifth Third Bancorp, Columbus-based Huntington Bancshares and Cleveland-based KeyCorp.

“If you look at the more attractive markets in Ohio, Cincinnati and Columbus in our view are the two most attractive,” Davis said. “That Cincinnati-Dayton corridor plus Columbus are the two most attractive, so we felt that we needed to be in Columbus long-term to have good growth opportunities on Ohio overall.”

First Financial’s stock price rose 3.5 percent Wednesday to close at $17.14 per share.

Bank merger and acquisition activity may be heating up. In October, Warren County bank LCNB Corp. reached an agreement to acquire Eaton National Bank & Trust Co. and five branch offices in Preble County. The same month, Huntington announced plans to acquire Cambridge-based Camco Financial, parent of Advantage Bank, which has branch offices in Mason and larger Cincinnati.

Davis commented on bank industry consolidation, saying “the economy is getting better. Bank stock prices are getting higher so you can afford to pay a higher price and there’s also a lot of what I would call overcapacity in the banking industry that I think is going to lead to more bank acquisition activity.”

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