Even though Robert E. "Bobby" Lowder was born and bred here in the land of cotton, the chairman and chief executive of Colonial BancGroup has fallen in love with Florida.

In January the company bought four institutions with more than $800 million of assets. All but one were in Florida, and Florida bankers are still visiting Mr. Lowder's office looking to negotiate deals.

"There are so many people down there, so much growth opportunity," Mr. Lowder mused in a recent interview.

February was a busy month for Colonial. The $6 billion-asset company announced two more Florida acquisition deals, which would add $225 million of assets and eight locations in West Palm Beach and Winterhaven. If those and two other pending deals are completed as planned, Colonial will have $1.3 billion in Florida assets and 43 locations in five of Florida's six largest metropolitan areas.

But Mr. Lowder, who is also Colonial's president, said he wants more. His goal: to turn Colonial in the "next three to five years" into a $15 billion-asset bank composed of three $5 billion-asset units-one each in Florida, Georgia, and Alabama.

Mr. Lowder also has ambitious profitability goals for Colonial: a 20% return on equity and a 1.45% return on assets by 2000. The bank's ROE was 17.57% and its ROA was 1.24% at yearend, excluding a one-time $3.8 million charge to help recapitalize the Savings Association Insurance Fund. (Colonial is a commercial bank holding company primarily regulated by the Federal Reserve System. In 1995 it purchased Mount Vernon Financial Corp., a $220 million-asset thrift based in Atlanta.)

The banking company's zeal to expand into Florida and its lofty performance goals mirror activities at other regional bank holding companies. But Colonial's rapid growth-it has more than tripled in asset size since 1992-is attracting the attention of other large acquisition- minded banks.

"As arbitrary as pure asset size is, the bigger you get, the better the chance you're going to be up on more radar screens," said John A. Pandtle, an analyst with Robinson-Humphrey Co. But analysts said that Colonial will probably be able to maintain its independence for the next few years.

As No. 5 in the lineup of Alabama's largest bank holding companies, Colonial is something of an upstart. While the others have their headquarters in the Birmingham area, Colonial has kept its base in smaller Montgomery.

Colonial has also maintained a high percentage of real estate loans- nearly 80%-in its commercial loan portfolio, something many banks have been loath to do since credit-quality problems hit the industry in the early 1990s.

Colonial's yearend ROE was better than those of the four largest Alabama banks, but its stock price appreciated only 27% in 1996; the average bank rose 36%. However, Colonial did beat three of the four largest Alabama banks in stock appreciation, and its stock was up another 19.4% by Monday's close.

Colonial's performance is largely due to the efforts of the 54-year-old Mr. Lowder, who started the bank in 1981 after spending time boosting his family's real estate fortune.

Not one to take no for an answer, the hard-edged businessman has driven the company tirelessly, buying up small financial institutions at a furious pace and setting benchmarks for growth and performance that his staffers dare not miss.

"You'll go into his office at the end of the year," said Young J. Boozer 3d, executive vice president, "and you've met all your goals, and you feel pretty good-and sometimes he'll say, 'I guess you didn't set your goals high enough.'"

Under Mr. Lowder's direction, Colonial shifted two years ago from its strategy of in-state growth to out-of-state expansion. Though Colonial was comparatively slow in seeking businesses outside Alabama-the big Birmingham banks began building out-of-state franchises long ago-the company is quickly making up for lost time.

In October 1995, Colonial made its first foray into Georgia, with the purchase of Mount Vernon Financial. Eight months later, Colonial garnered seven more branches in the Atlanta area with the acquisition of $230 million-asset Commercial Bank of Georgia.

Later that year Colonial went into Florida for the first time, cutting a deal to buy Southern Bank of Central Florida for about $50 million. Southern brought with it eight offices in the Orlando area.

Colonial's biggest deal to date wa the January acquisition of $440 million-asset Jefferson Bancorp in Miami. That transaction gave Colonial nine locations in a three-county area that has a larger population than the entire state of Alabama.

"Eventually everybody retires and moves their money down to Florida, so you want to bank where the money is," said Christopher T. Kelley, with Morgan Keegan & Co. "The Florida market is much faster-growing than Alabama."

Despite slow growth in its home state, Colonial still has plans to expand there-and in southern Tennessee. Assuming all pending acquisitions close on schedule, Colonial will have a $600 million-asset bank in Georgia, a $100 million-asset bank in Tennessee, and a $4 billion-asset Alabama bank by the third quarter.

Mr. Lowder is "personally involved in the acquisition program," said T. Stephen Johnson, an Atlanta consultant who has advised Colonial on many of its transactions. "I've been involved in deals where I didn't think there was any way it would happen until he came and talked to the board. He's very persuasive."

Mr. Lowder's personal involvement in Colonial reflects the size of his financial commitment to the bank. He owns more than 7% of Colonial's stock and controls more than 18% in combination with his two brothers, James K. Lowder and Thomas H. Lowder.

In addition to his responsibilities at the holding company, Mr. Lowder keeps a hand in at the local bank units. He jets from state to state in a private plane, attending board meetings, loan committee meetings, and even staff rallies.

"He's pretty hands-on," Mr. Kelley said.

And he is being compensated for it, with a base salary of $743,729 last year, plus a $277,397 bonus. The next-highest-paid executive at the company, W. Flake Oakley 4th, executive vice president and CFO, made $151,971 in salary and a $15,000 bonus.

Mr. Lowder's position at Colonial brings him other perks as well. A real estate company which he partly owns leases land to Colonial. Life and health insurance products sold by the bank come from another Lowder entity. Colonial buys advertising from a Lowder-owned broadcasting company.

Even the private plane that Mr. Lowder and other bank executives use to fly around their growing empire is leased to the banking company by a corporation owned by Mr. Lowder. Lease payments totaled $1.45 million in 1996, according to Colonial's most recent proxy.

Mr. Lowder's overlapping business interests are not the norm for CEOs of regional bank holding companies, analysts said. But, they pointed out, as long as the deals are fair and Colonial delivers to its shareholders, who cares?

"Bobby is a very entrepreneurial individual," said R. Harold Schroeder, an analyst at Keefe, Bruyette & Woods Inc. "The guy has a lot of business experience. He's a better banker because of it."

Indeed, a key to Colonial's solid performance has been Colonial Mortgage Co., which Mr. Lowder and his brothers sold to the banking company in 1995. Started in 1966, Colonial Mortgage provides about half of the banking company's noninterest income, servicing 120,000 customers in 35 states.

"It increased our fee income tremendously," said Cindy Clark, Colonial's vice president for investor relations. "We depend on the mortgage company to be anywhere from 12% to 15% of the bottom line."

With no successor in the wings and none of Mr. Lowder's three children taking an interest in following in their father's footsteps, one question is obvious: Is Mr. Lowder positioning his franchise for sale?

With an easy grin, Mr. Lowder dodged the question. "I'm having fun and I love what I'm doing," he said. "As long as we're performing well, only good things will happen."

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