Barnett Banks Inc. said Monday it would slim down from 32 bank charters to five, becoming the latest regional to abandon a once-popular decentralized banking structure.

The Jacksonville, Fla.-based bank holding company said all but four of its 32 banks and several of its nonbank affiliates will become part of a newly created subsidiary, Barnett Bank NA.

Barnett thus joined SunTrust Banks Inc., Banc One Corp., and SouthTrust Corp. among companies that have dropped a "supercommunity" banking strategy intended to preserve close ties with local communities.

Barnett attributed its move to the need to reduce regulatory paperwork, but analysts said the need to cut costs in today's competitive environment has been the main factor in banks' abandoning the supercommunity model.

"Most of the larger banks are going to have a greater degree of centralization, at least behind the scenes if not out front," said Sandra Flannigan, an analyst at Merrill Lynch & Co.

"From a cost and management perspective, this is a more efficient way to manage a bank," said Anthony Davis, the regional bank analyst at Dean Witter Reynolds Inc.

Barnett had been one of the few remaining large banks with a decentralized approach.

Each of Barnett's major in-state competitors, NationsBank Corp. and First Union Corp., has just one charter in Florida.

Last year, Banc One, the industry's most vigorous defender of using separate charters for each bank in the holding company structure, abandoned this approach. Banc One now plans to consolidate its roughly 88 banks into 20 state charters by the end of 1996.

Charles Rice, chief executive of Barnett, said the move to rationalize his bank's legal structure would help management focus on core banking issues while giving less attention to regulatory paperwork.

In an effort to keep the local touch, however, Barnett will leave the 32 banks' chief executives and boards of directors in place as informal advisers.

Barnett's affiliated banks in Southeast Georgia, Southwest Georgia, Marion County, and Sanibel Island, Fla., will retain their charters.

A Barnett spokesman said the bank did not view the move as a cost- cutting maneuver and so had no estimate of how much it would save.

The bank had said last year, however, that were it to have only one bank charter it would save $5 million to $7 million a year, said Mr. Davis of Dean Witter. The company's operating expenses last year topped $1.5 billion.

Barnett's move won praise from analysts, but its stock price dropped because some investors who had been expecting a merger announcement were disappointed and sold their shares.

The shares rose $4 Friday after rumors swept the market that the $42 billion-asset bank was about to be acquired, perhaps by NationsBank. The stock fell $2.625 a share, to $59.625, in heavy trading Monday.

Barnett has always declared a desire to remain independent, but the recent successful hostile bid by Wells Fargo & Co. for First Interstate Bancorp put that strategy in some doubt, observers said.

Still, antitrust concerns would make a bid difficult for either NationsBank or First Union, experts said.

"Both NationsBank and First Union would have market share issues with a purchase of Barnett," said Adam Hitt, an investment banker at Alex. Brown & Sons Inc. who specializes in southeastern banks.

A NationsBank-Barnett merger would cause statewide deposit concentration to exceed a level that would raise red flags for regulators, added Edward Dillon of SNL Securities.

Other companies have been mentioned as Barnett acquirers. Last summer, rumors paired Barnett with Banc One, and some investors say BankAmerica Corp. could view Barnett as a logical entry vehicle into the Southeast.

"I do think it is only a question of time until this bank is taken over," said Michael Stead, a fund manager at SIFE Trust Fund.

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