First Niagara arrives in Western Pa.


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First Niagara Financial yesterday completed the takeover of 57 former National City bank branches from PNC Financial Services Group, vaulting the Buffalo, N.Y., area company to the third-largest retail bank in the Pittsburgh region, behind PNC and Citizens Bank of Pennsylvania.

First Niagara will convert customer accounts over the weekend. Customers should begin using their new First Niagara checks and ATM cards today.

Customers who mistakenly use old National City checks don't have to worry about them bouncing, however, at least for now. There's a 60-day grace period during which those checks will be automatically forwarded to First Niagara.

First Niagara is using the last 10 digits of a customer's old National City account as the customer's new account number. Customers whose accounts had fewer than 10 digits will have zeros added to the beginning to create a 10-digit number.

The converted branches will open under the new First Niagara moniker on Tuesday, after the Labor Day holiday.

The 57 branches are all in Western Pennsylvania, including 33 offices in Allegheny County. PNC was required to divest the branches to settle antitrust concerns when it bought ailing Cleveland-based National City Corp. in December. PNC kept 110 National City branches in the region, which it plans to start converting to the PNC system in November.

First Niagara Executive Vice President Frank Polino said Web banking would be available Tuesday, possibly even Monday. People who pay their bills online will not have to re-enter recurring payments, he said. "Online banking will look different, but all the information will still be there," he said.

Under an agreement with PNC, this weekend only customers will be able to use their new First Niagara ATM cards at any PNC, or former National City branch that is staying with PNC, without incurring a surcharge, Mr. Polino said.

The switch-over is First Niagara's biggest conversion to date. The bank expects that things will go smoothly but is asking customers to report any problems to its call center at 1-800-421-0004.

First Niagara retained all 500 employees at the 57 branches and has hired another 70 to 80 people, Mr. Polino said. The bank is still looking to hire mortgage and commercial lenders, cash management sales people, plus branch managers and tellers, he said. Job openings are posted at www.fnfg.com.

First Niagara hopes to expand in the Pittsburgh market, possibly buying more branches if PNC decides to close some of the National City offices it retained, Mr. Polino said.

"We're in a lot of great locations [in the Pittsburgh region], but we have a few holes," he said.

First Niagara has the right to match the best offer PNC would receive for any shuttered offices, Mr. Polino said. PNC has said it expected to consolidate some locations where PNC and National City branches overlap.

First Niagara announced the $54 million deal to buy the 57 branches, including $4 billion in deposits, in April.


Patricia Sabatini can be reached at psabatini@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3066.


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