FIRST ALABAMA Bancshares may have changed its name, but chairman and chief executive J. Stanley Mackin says it hasn't changed course.
In April, shareholders voted to rename the Birminghambased holding company Regions Financial Corp. to reflect its growth across six Southeastern states.
Since taking the helm in 1990, Mr. Mackin has guided the bank through 15 acquisitions - four of which are still pending - that have boosted assets from $6.3 billion to $10.5 billion today.
"We've achieved what we set out to do and set the stage for continued growth," said Mr. Mackin.
While he continues to eye and buy community banks and thrifts in the states around Alabama, Mr. Mackin acknowledges that a bank of Regions' size will eventually be looked at by bigger banks planning to expand into the Southeast - especially if Washington loosens interstate banking laws.
But to Mr. Mackin, who points to the holding company's unbroken string of record earnings and dividend growth since its formation 23 years ago, Regions is like a rolling stone that isn't gathering Spanish moss.
"We're not just a little, small Southern financial institution who's going to either dry up or offer ourselves up to the world. We're competitors," he said.
At the end of 1993, the company completed its largest acquisition to date, of Secor Bank, a $1.9 billion-asset failed thrift based in New Orleans. When that merger - announced last summer - received a less than enthusiastic response from analysts, bank officials spoke about slowing the merger juggernaut. But today, Mr. Mackin said, the acquisition plans are back on track.
Already this year, the company agreed to buy two banks - in Rome, Ga., and New Roads, La. - with combined assets of about $260 million.
Among the nearly 150 banks tracked by Keefe, Bruyette & Woods Inc., New York, the Birmingham company has ranked for more than two years among the top 12 in balancesheet strength and profitability.
And that's in a tough, competitive market, observers said Henry J. Coffey Jr., an analyst with J.C. Bradford in Nashville, said competition in Alabama is the most "deadly" in the country because of the number of large banks and the stable size of the markets.
"In Alabama, if you make a mistake you have to live with it for 10 years," he said. "It's not Florida" - where hundreds of potential customers are moving into the state each month.
Last year, Mr. Mackin's bank posted a return on assets of 1.40%, up from 1.34% in 1992. Earnings per share in 1993 were $3.01, up 16% over year-earlier results.
Further, he says, the bank has the technological infrastructure to handle its growth plans. It is now installing two key software systems.
The efficiency ratio, or noninterest expense per dollar of revenue, stands at a respectable 58.4%.
Mr. Mackin readily admits his bank has benefited from the relatively stable economy in Alabama. "It's a great economy and always has been. There's pretty consistent growth," he said. "We don't have big ups or big downs.
"If you'd been a banker in Texas ... and didn't participate in financing oil rigs or the real estate boom, you'd probably have been left. You probably would have closed down," Mr. Mackin said. "I would have done the same thing the rest of those people did. They didn't create what happened."
That's a modest statement from a man who came up through the commercial lending side of what had long been regarded as a conservative institution.
Mr. Mackin, now 61, joined the predecessor bank in Birmingham in 1966. By 1983, he was president and CEO of First Alabama Bank in Birmingham.
He was named chief operating officer for the holding company in January 1990, and assumed his current posts later that year. At that time, there was speculation the bank might be put up for sale.
Mr. Mackin would have none of that. He outlined a plan with the aim of reaching $10 billion in assets within five years - a goal the company would reach two years ahead of schedule.
"We feel like we've done a hell of a job managing this company and satisfying all of the desires of the stockholder. And we're going to continue to do that. And we're not interested in anybody else doing it for us," he said, adding, "Until and if we can't do it. If we can't do it, we want to join up with the best out there."
Analysts say that Mr. Mackin probably doesn't have to worry about that for now. They say early targets in the South are unlikely to be in Alabama.
At any rate, Regions is looking to be on the acquiring end of deals. Mr. Mackin wants the company to continue to grow in its home state as well expand its presence in Louisiana, middle Tennessee, the Florida panhandle, northwest Georgia, and Mississippi.
The home-state bank will retain the First Alabama name and out-of-state affiliates will take on the Regions moniker.
"We feel like it is necessary for us to stay right in Alabama and the peripheral areas where we kind of look like each other, act like each other, talk like each other, and do business like each other," Mr. Mackin said.
Birmingham, once a big steel city, is now home to a major medical center. The nearby Tuscaloosa area is the site of a plant that will be turning out Mercedes-Benz cars.
And the economy in Louisiana, which suffered heavily after oil prices crashed in the 1980s, has begun to perk up recently, in no small part due to the advent of casino gambling. While Mr. Mackin is not worried about acquisition targets - there are 47 banks in Louisiana with assets exceeding $100 million - he does worry about price.
"I think there is some ridiculous pricing going on out there that, in my mind, will take light years ... to make money and add value to those communities," said Mr. Mackin. "Don't be giving me this 'so much times book.' Let's look at your earnings capability. And let's guesstimate about the future." Mr. Mackin cited two regional competitors as having overpaid for acquisitions: Hibernia Corp. and Premier Bancorp in Louisiana.
As for the chilly reception accorded the Secor deal, Mr. Mackin said: "The analysts didn't know that the CEO of Secor had called me annually for four years, and invited us to look at them. We knew everything there was to know about them."
A major problem was $40 million worth of bad loans on the failing thrifi's books. But when the government stepped in, Mr. Mackin was immediately interested. His bank won a bidding war against Birmingham rival AmSouth Bancorp.
Mr. Mackin said it was a good match. Secor had a $1.2 billion mortgage servicing portfolio that was folded into the bank's own growing mortgage unit. All but three of the thrift's 23 branches in Alabama were in areas served by the bank. Mr. Mackin said all but one have been sold off.
Further, the Secor purchase included four South Horida locations. "They were in big retirement communities," said Mr. Mackin. The bank later sold the four branches for a profit.
And finally, he said, the bank found some attractive real estam in Secor's New Orleans area branches.
"Our forte is the small businessman and the consumer," he said. "In New Orleans, there is room for us."
"The Secor deal demonstrates [Regions'] thoughtful approach to acquisitions," said Richard Stillinger, associate director of research for Keefe, Brnyette & Woods.
The Secor acquisition also reaped some back office efficiencies. "We felt we would wring out $30-35 million in expenses," Mr. Mackin said. "We've already done that. And there's more to come."
Data processing for the thrift's Louisiana operations will be converted to the bank's data processing center in Montgomery this summer.
"A lot of people... are outsourcing and that type of stuff. We like to feel that we are masters of our own fate," Mr. Mackin said.
Because of the Seeor acquisition, Regions is accelerating the consolidation of its consumer loan operations with software from Systematics Financial Services Inc., originally planned for 1995. The software replaces an outdated system.
"We decided to spend up to $250,000 to bring in outside consultants that will enhance the capability of our own internal people to shorten that conversion," Mr. Mackin said.
It is scheduled to be completed with four months.
Regions is also in the final phase of installing deposit software from Hogan Systems Inc. for its 231 branch offices.
"It's an ongoing attempt to stay out there on the leading edge," said Mr. Mackin. "That precludes the need then to come in here with some consultant or some firm" to undergo a major reengineering.
Still, Regions hasn't ventured ahead of the industry with regard to technology. The strategy is to spend enough to keep up. with its growth and stay competitive, but the bank is taking a wait-and-see attitude on newer technologies such as home banking or computerized cross-selling tools for branch personnel.
"The more you build into these systems, the slower it becomes," said Richard D. Horsley, vice chairman and executive financial officer.
Regions appears to take a cautious approach to technology spending.
"We like to invest in proven technology. So you'll seldom see us out there on a limb," said Mr. Horsley.
At a recent meeting of the technology steering committee, executives decided not to spend $1 million on a backup generator for its data processing center in Montgomery.
Mr. Mackin noted that the only major outage in 22 years shut down the center for a total of three hours. "The risk/reward measurement [was] out of killer," said Mr. Mackin.
At the meeting, executives decided to spend $100,000 to upgrade the customer service link for business customers. But they passed on a $500,000 investment to enhance the capacity of the bank's 24-hour service for consumers, which was getting clogged with phone calls.
"We deferred the decision to deal with the consumer because of what we suspect is a large, abusive use of that system," Mr. Mackin said.
"That's the little ladies that call every day and find out about the bank account. That's obviously not necessary."
Regions is considering charing for the service to reduce the number of calls.
Mr. Horsley said one technology area that needs improvement is the electronic links between the branches and mortgage company. "[We are] trying to marry the technology of the two companies together.
"We need to be able to generate transactions that we can run through [by hooking] into the telecommunications network."
Still, said Mr. Horsley, "We're in the stage now where we've put in place most the technology we wanted to accomplish. It took us longer, we spent more money, than we expected. Now we've got it in and all our emphasis is on how to make it run right."
Mr. Horsley said he would like to see a further drop in the efficiency ratio. But Mr. Mackin said, "I don't see how we can go too much further than 58% right now. We have too much to do."
Mr. Horsley noted that the bank's strategy of giving affiliate bank presidents a lot of autonomy has its costs.
"The organizational structure we have is not efficient. It's expensive. But we think it's much more responsive to the consumer."
And that, officials say, will give them the edge over regional competitors.
"We're in a war," said Mr. Mackin, chuckling. "We just don't shoot each other."