Three out-of-state banking companies are intensifying their struggle for the hearts and bank accounts of Floridians.

The war is being waged in the wake of NationsBank Corp.'s January purchase of Jacksonville-based Barnett Banks Inc., formerly Florida's largest banking company.

First Union Corp. and NationsBank, both of Charlotte, N.C., and Atlanta- based SunTrust Banks Inc. have launched aggressive public relations campaigns in the Sunshine State.

Last week, NationsBank chief executive officer Hugh L. McColl Jr. visited former Barnett branches in Fort Lauderdale and Miami.

He told former Barnett employees that NationsBank wanted the integration of their Florida operations to go smoothly. He also said there would be no heavy merger-related layoffs or branch closings, according to a NationsBank spokeswoman. The company has the largest deposit market share in Florida- nearly 32%-with $60 billion of deposits.

Meanwhile, second-place First Union, with a 17% deposit market share, has bought a series of full-page advertisements touting its commitment to Florida in 15 newspapers across the state.

A First Union executive in Florida said the ads, which began running Jan. 26 and will continue indefinitely, are part of a coordinated publicity campaign.

The ads take the form of personal letters from First Union executives. Each of the 15 newspapers gets an ad displaying a letter tailored to its area.

"We want to remind the community that we're here for their financial needs and also that we put a lot back into the communities we serve," said Roger G. Pearce, area president in Jacksonville, who signed one of the ads.

No. 3 SunTrust, with a 10.4% deposit market share, has been running commercials on Florida television stations. One depicts a person standing on a railroad track with a locomotive approaching swiftly. The character ponders whether it is time to move.

"The war is heating up," said Richard X. Bove, an analyst at Raymond James & Associates Inc., St. Petersburg. "Most banks, First Union included, believe they now have a huge opportunity to take clients away from NationsBank, so each one has geared up with its own special program."

Mr. McColl's two-day Miami-Fort Lauderdale tour had more than symbolic importance, analysts said.

"His visibility can make a difference," said Michael Mayo, an analyst at Credit Suisse First Boston. "I think he was there to send a message to Barnett employees that it's in their mutual interest to work together" to integrate the banks.

Mr. McColl also spent a day three weeks ago in Orlando, a spokeswoman said. He and NationsBank president Kenneth D. Lewis will return to Florida in March to visit Tampa, she added.

First Union's chairman and chief executive officer, Edward E. Crutchfield Jr., also visited Florida this month. Two weeks ago he was keynote speaker at a breakfast for 50 business leaders in Jacksonville, Mr. Pearce said.

Analysts who live in Florida said consumers stand to benefit from all the extra attention. "It is the first time in many years that we've seen real competition in the Florida market," Mr. Bove said.

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