Columbia Banking System, which is about to complete a merger with Umpqua Holdings which would create a $50 billion franchise on the West Coast, is expanding into Utah.

Columbia Bank’s parent company, based in Tacoma, Wash., said Tuesday it has hired two Salt Lake City-area banking industry veterans as part of the effort.

James Divver started in May as senior vice president and head of business development, and Jeffrey Thomas started last month as senior vice president and head of commercial banking in the company’s new loan production office. bank in Utah.

“We’re looking to empower people in local markets. They really run the bank; we’re not trying to run it from headquarters,” said Chris Merrywell, Columbia’s chief operating officer and executive vice president. He added that the loan office is just their opening game, as they hope to use it to win new customers and eventually convert it into a full-service bank shop.

Thomas was previously senior vice president and market leader of business banking in the Salt Lake City area for US Bancorp, and Divver was senior vice president of government relations for Zions Bancorp.

Hires come later Last year, Columbia’s acquisition of the Merchants Bank of Commerce pushed the company – which was already present in Washington, Oregon and Idaho – to California. Following the Merchants acquisition, the Columbia team viewed Utah, particularly the Salt Lake City area, as a key growth market, Merrywell said.

“We’ve always looked at how trade moves. And so if you look at the highways and you look at Boise, [Idaho]you go down through Twin Falls, that’s a natural extension of going down into Utah,” he said.

Columbia’s merger with Portland, Oregon-based Umpqua is expected to close in the third quarter, pending approval from regulators, Merrywell said. He said no unusual hurdles have arisen, but in general “things are moving slower than in the past” with merger approvals.

The Umpqua merger will allow Utah bank executives to play with more possibilities — from supporting big banks to serving small businesses, Merrywell said.

“When we come together, we will fit into a position in the market that will allow us to meet many needs, to support many different types of customers,” he said.