As the president of Jacksonville, Fla.-based Barnett Banks Inc., Allen Lastinger Jr. sits atop a $40 billion-asset organization in one of the strongest banking states in the nation.

The Sunshine State's booming economy and surplus of affluent individuals makes it, by most measurements, a banker's paradise. But even paradise can get old-hat after a while, and Barnett is itching for new growth.

"We characterize it as being trapped in heaven," said Allen L. Lastinger Jr., president and chief operating officer.

For a while Barnett sought escape in Georgia, where it bought some banks. Then it sold them, having decided that investing in markets growing more slowly than Florida's costs too much and promises too little.

So Barnett has adopted an innovative approach to expansion that has catapulted it onto the national scene in short order. While keeping the Barnett name and banking operations in Florida, it has spent the last two years buying and building a network of consumer lending operations throughout the country.

"Our strategy is just as nationwide as anybody else's, but we have a different spin," said Douglas K. Freeman, Barnett's chief consumer credit executive. Mr. Freeman, who formerly headed Barnett's business banking, took the helm at the newly created consumer credit division about 10 months ago.

Barnett's most recent move was its $670 million acquisition of Oxford Resources Inc., the nation's largest independent auto leasing company. The April purchase completed a platform of operations that is expected to give Barnett a presence in most of the continental U.S. by yearend.

Oxford's customer base of 4,000 automobile dealers in 21 states complements Barnett's long-held Dealer Financial Services subsidiary that for decades has offered purchase financing through auto dealers and, in doing so, provides a significant opportunity for new revenue growth, said industry analysts.

But as attractive as the Oxford opportunities appear, Barnett has another card up its sleeve. The other national growth vehicle is EquiCredit Corp., a consumer finance company Barnett bought in early 1995.

After opening 35 new offices last year, EquiCredit now has 125 offices in 41 states. Another 20 to 30 will be opened this year, said Mr. Freeman. EquiCredit's loan originations have grown from $650 million to more than $2 billion in the last two years. This year, the company will begin using direct mail and telemarketing to extend the market further.

"Looking at their nationwide strategy, the deals they've done to date have turned out to be financial home runs," said Darren R. Short, an analyst with Robinson-Humphrey Co. "EquiCredit has contributed to a large degree on a quarterly basis. And going forward, the ability to be able to cross-sell traditional banking products to the nationwide customer base is pretty immense. There is a lot of potential here."

The nationwide growth strategy also includes Barnett Mortgage Co., which originates loans through 29 offices in 19 states currently and has a small 15-office wholesale mortgage company called Loan America Financial Corp.

Meanwhile, Barnett has pulled back from going it alone in the mortgage and credit card businesses and forged partnerships to run those operations.

Last year, it formed a joint venture with BankBoston Corp. called HomeSide Inc. to handle mortgage servicing, for example. And last fall the company cut a deal with Household Credit Services Inc. to jointly operate Barnett's credit card business. As part of that deal, Barnett sold Household Credit a portion of its $1.7 billion in troubled credit card receivables.

But Mr. Freeman said he sees plenty of obstacles ahead, including more problems with consumer credit and ever-tougher competition, to name a few.

For now, however, Barnett is focused on short-term goals.

"Our biggest challenge is to execute our plans," said Mr. Freeman. "We have a lot on our plate."

For all the attention it is placing on nationwide growth, Barnett has no intention of letting up at home.

Though the company already enjoys a healthy lead in many markets in Florida and estimates it "touches" 40% of Florida households with at least one banking relationship, competition is still fierce, particularly with First Union Corp. and NationsBank Corp.

As a result, Barnett is rethinking its Florida strategy, shaking up business lines across the board with the goal of pushing revenues higher and market penetration rates deeper.

Among the recent changes: Asset-management executives last year developed a private client services unit to provide each customer with one representative to handle a range of trust and brokerage services. On the business banking side, Barnett introduced an employee leasing program and a commercial real estate loan brokerage operation.

This year, the company is beefing up its investment sales force, hiring more than 200 financial consultants. It is also rolling out automobile and life insurance products. And it is introducing equipment-leasing products for midsize and large businesses, an estimated $5 billion market.

For retail customers, company officials are putting the finishing touches on a new line of products that will be introduced this summer. The offerings will more closely tie costs to the value of the relationships, the bank said.

The company also plans to push ahead with an in-store branching program that would put Barnett in 40 Publix grocery stores in 1997 and in a total of 446 stores within the next few years.

A key factor in Barnett's strategy is its development of a high-tech "retail market management system" that provides detailed revenue and cost analyses for each line of business. Coupled with an extensive cost-analysis system that scrutinizes customer activity, the technology gives Barnett an advantage over most competitors, analysts said.

"It's really a differentiating characteristic of Barnett," said Anthony Davis, an analyst at Dillon Reed.

Mr. Lastinger is considered the main architect of Barnett's growth strategy, since he is responsible for day-to-day operations.

Therefore the company's recent announcement that its chairman and chief executive officer, Charles E. Rice, was taking temporary leave for treatment of alcoholism is not expected to have much effect on the bank.

"I don't think it will have any impact at all," said Mr. Davis. "Allen's been running the company for the last four or five years anyway."

Barnett officials refuse to specify earnings goals, except to say they want to be among the top 25 banking companies in return on assets and equity. To get there, Barnett will need 13% increases in annual earnings per share, said Charles W. Newman, chief financial officer. First-quarter ROA was 1.41% and ROE 19.34%.

Earnings from business banking should grow between 8% to 12% this year, but officials are aiming for a 15% to 20% gain in consumer lending.

Indeed the non-Florida consumer lending businesses should bring in 20% of revenues within the next five years, said Mr. Newman.

"There are some things that they do really well, so why not take those national?" said R. Harold Schroeder, an analyst with Keefe, Bruyette & Woods Inc.

"A lot of people talk about it; the difference is Barnett is doing it."

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