The top executive of First Citizens BancShares Inc. dropped a big hint not long ago that the North Carolina lender was on the acquisition trail.

CEO Frank Holding Jr. appeared by video in a recent "State of Bank" update to employees. One of his key messages was that for Raleigh-based First Citizens to remain competitive and succeed "well into the future, we aspire to be a significantly larger organization that operates more efficiently and effectively."

"We also shared with you that strategic mergers and acquisitions, executed with discipline and prudence, are an excellent way to grow," Holding said, according to a newly released transcript of his presentation.

He followed up that remark with the announcement late Tuesday that his company's board had struck a deal to acquire the largest South Carolina-based bank.

The merger of First Citizens Bancorporation Inc. of Columbia and First Citizens of Raleigh will create the largest family-controlled bank in the nation, the companies said. The cash and stock deal was valued between $637 million and $676 million.

The combined company would have assets of $31 billion, deposits of $26 billion and loans of $18 billion. Its estimated 575 branches would be spread over 18 states and Washington, D.C. It would be the sixth largest bank headquartered in the Southeast.

The deal is expected to be finalized in the fall. Holding, a third-generation First Citizens CEO, will lead the combined business, which will be headquartered in Raleigh.

The banks share more than a name. Holding's family owns a controlling stake in First Citizens, which is a publicly traded company, and in the closely held South Carolina owner of First Citizens Bank and Trust. While they share some back-office functions and customer conveniences, the two lenders have operated independently for the most part.

"Spreading our operating expenses across a greater universe of markets and customers will improve efficiencies and boost profitability," Holding said in an announcement to employees. "We will also be able to leverage the existing teamwork between our two banks, and capitalize on each other's particular strengths."

First Citizens isn't the only bank seeking to get bigger, said industry expert Tony Plath, an associate professor of finance at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte.

"It just makes sense from a cost standpoint to distribute your costs over a wider revenue base," he said.

The merger isn't likely to trigger many branch closings in the Palmetto State, where the North Carolina acquirer has no retail offices. Most of the overlap is in the Atlanta area.

First Citizens Bank and Trust has about 20 locations in the Charleston region.

The merger is likely to lead to a new mix of products that the banks offer once they start to come together, according to a question-and-answer sheet for employees. The "likely outcome may be a common collection" of financial goods and services, according to the document.

"These are issues that management will be evaluating for a while before any decisions and changes are made," First Citizens said.

Customers probably won't notice any immediate changes.

"For the most part, until systems conversion is completed - tentatively planned for early 2015 - customers should bank as they normally do at their existing branches," the acquiring bank said.

Contact John McDermott at 937-5572.