J. Stanley Mackin hasn't quite started a revolution, but he has lit a fire under one of the South's most conservative banks.

Since taking over as chairman and chief executive of First Alabama Bancshares Inc. three years ago. Mr. Mackin has coordinated an acquisition binge such as the company hasn't seen since the 1970s. Since 1990, six deals have been consummated, increasing First Alabama's size 45% to $8.1 billion of assets.

Five more deals are pending, including the purchase of a $2 billion-asset thrift that will make First Alabama the largest bank organization -- as measured by deposits -- in the state.

Growth by Acquisition |a Line of Business'

"Growth through acquisition is a line of business in this company," Mr. Mackin said.

The Mackin culture reminds some bankers of the company during the 1970s, when it expanded rapidly through acquisitions under the leadership of Frank A. Plummer. Mr. Plummer's successor, Willard L. "Jack" Hurley, slowed the deal flow to a trickle in the 1980s when the bank's data processing systems proved unable to keep up with the pace of expansion.

Mr. Mackin's hard-charging, goal-oriented style has been welcomed by many First Alabama old-timers, who felt the bank had become complacent during the 1980s.

"The biggest thing Stan has brought is a renewed enthusiasm about the company," said Robert P. Houston, First Alabama's comptroller.

Independent Course

When Mr. Mackin took over in August 1990, many insiders were expecting the company to be sold. In 1987, Mr. Hurley had told analysts and investors he would explore any option that might benefit shareholders. Now retired, Mr. Hurley says he never had any "serious" negotiations with a potential acquirer.

But when Mr. Mackin arrived, he was determined to let his employees know that he would steer the bank on an independent expansionist course. An experienced commercial lender, he had served since 1983 as chief executive of First Alabama Bank Birmingham, the company's largest subsidiary. By the time he moved up to the parent company, he had built the unit from about $300 million up to $786 million of assets.

Five-Year Growth Plan

Once there, Mr. Mackin immediately shut the door on any takeover talk. "We saw no reason to consider disposing of this company," he said.

He quickly developed a five-year strategic plan that raised profitability goals for nearly every department. And he outlined a master growth plan.

Using acquisitions of savings and loans as his chief strategy, he focused on building market share in Alabama and in the Florida Panhandle. He also made incursions into other neighboring states, buying a thrift and two community banks in middle Tennessee.

Over the Top with Secor Deal

In May, his expansion program culminated with an agreement to buy Birmingham-based Secor Bank, Alabama's biggest thrift, which has more deposits in Louisiana than in Alabama.

But the deal, scheduled close later this year will help First Alabama edge out Amsouth Bancorp. for the number one share of deposits in Alabama.

It also will satisfy one of the major goals of Mr. Mackin's five-year plan -- reaching $10 billion of assets by 1995. But now that he's about there, he has upped the ante, telling analysts he wants to hit $12 billion.

|A Prime Example'

"Under Stan Mackin, the bank has been more aggressive in expanding, and the Secor deal is a prime example," said Richard I. Stillinger, a Keefe, Bruyette & Woods Inc. analyst. "I think it's been done in a measured fashion, without sacrificing the basic quality of the company."

Ready for a Breather

Mr. Hurley said he approves of his successor's strategy, though he wonders whether the company is being too optimistic about the benefits it can extract from Secor. The thrift's wide interest margins, like those of most companies in the banking and thrift industries, are likely to shrink, he said,

Mr. Mackin says First Alabama is ready to take a merger breather, at least through the end of 1994. "We have to have a handle on all we've acquired before we go branching out on additional acquisitions," he said.

But he has already used his acquisitions to achieve a major profitability goal of the five-year plan -- attainment of a return on equity of 15%. First Alabama has long struggled with putting its high levels of equity to work. Through most of the late 1980s, the company's ROE hovered around 13% -- a level that Mr. Mackin deemed mediocre.

The company's fortress-like capital position was the main culprit. Last year, First Alabama's Tier 1 capital ratio of 11.68% was the 21st strongest among the nation's top 100 bank holding companies, according to American Banker.

Ahead of Schedule

Mr. Mackin decided early on that strong capital was no excuse for a low ROE, so he developed the acquisition plan hand in hand with his goal of using equity productively. By the end of 1992 -- two years ahead of schedule -- the company had lifted its ROE to 15.64%, up from 14.27% at yearend 1991. In this year's second quarter, shareholders received a sterling 16.6% return on their investments.

The major factor behind the rise was the addition of $1.3 billion of new assets without a commensurate rise in equity. Most of the growth came through the purchase of insolvent thrifts, which did not require the issuance of additional shares. As a result, average shareholders' equity to average, total assets declined to 8.59% last year, from 9.03% in, 1990.

As measured by return on assets, First Alabama has long been a strong performer. ROA reached 1.34% at yearend 1992 and climbed to 1.44% in the second quarter this year.

Loans Limited to $25 Million

The numbers reflect a conservative credit culture and the bank's strategic focus on small-business and consumer lending.

The house limit for a loan to a single borrower at First Alabama is $25 million -- one fourth the company's legal lending limit -- and fewer than two dozen credits are at the limit, said E.C. "Chris" Stone, an executive vice president in charge of corporate lending.

Though Mr. Mackin has absorbed the company's conservative culture in his 27 years at First Alabama, he now has a chance to implement some of his own ideas.

Real Estate Background

A Birmingham native, Mr. Mackin graduated from Auburn University and then spent 10 years in the real estate business in Birmingham and Huntsville. He joined First Alabama. as a commercial lender in 1966.

Coming from a far more more aggressive industry than banking, he said, has helped him reshape the company.

At 60, however, Mr. Mackin is fairly traditional about his personal plans. Though First Alabama has no mandatory retirement requirement, the executive said he fully expects to leave by age 65, devoting time to his eight grandchildren and getting in some deer hunting and fly fishing on the side.

Straight and Steady Course

His company, in the meantime, is likely to pursue a straight and steady course, according to analysts.

With a market capitalization exceeding $1 billion and stock trading at a 184% market-to-book valuation, it is not seen as vulnerable to takeover by even the largest of superregionals.

"We don't know if anybody's bulletproof in the real long term," said Michael L Granger of Fox-Pitt Kelton Inc. "But everything First Alabama has demonstrated suggests they're not going to have to sell because of poor performance."

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