A few top banks have grown into giant ATM deployers.

Amid a rapid industry consolidation and a penchant for placing automated teller machines away from bank premises, the top 50 ATM-owning banks had an aggregate 76,471 ATMs midyear, for a year-to-year increase of 24%, according to an annual data compilation by American Banker. Between 1996 and 1997, the jump was 17%.

The merger of BankAmerica Corp. and NationsBank Corp. after the reporting period created the largest deployer by far, with 14,850 machines. The Charlotte, N.C.-based BankAmerica's total number would place it sixth in a ranking of regional ATM networks.

Chicago-based Bank One Corp., which merged with First Chicago in October, followed with a pro forma 10,108 ATMs.

Wells Fargo & Co. of San Francisco, including merger partner Norwest Corp., had 7,803. U.S. Bancorp of Minneapolis, formerly First Bank System, had 4,874.

As the big-bank mergers created ATM titans, off-premises deployment continues to drive the growth.

Over the past three years, ATM surcharges and lower-cost technology have widened profit margins and fueled a proliferation of cash dispensers in outlets such as convenience stores, supermarkets, malls, and drug stores.

Despite indications of market saturation, banks continue to view ATMs as a way to make ever more distribution points available to customers.

In the year through June 30, KeyCorp of Cleveland more than doubled its off-premises ATMs, to 1,076 ATMs. A deal with Atlantic Richfield Co. for 600 machines has given the bank its first entree into California, Arizona, and Nevada.

Similarly, Citigroup struck a deal in May to put 3,000 machines in Blockbuster video stores.

But there is a less optimistic edge to the ATM proliferation. In June, a leading machine supplier, Diebold Inc. of Canton, Ohio, announced layoffs because of a decline in orders due to banks' preoccupation with mergers and year-2000 compliance issues. Bank One Corp., the most ambitious bank in off-site deployment, said in July it was "reevaluating" its unprofitable machine locations and scaling back a plan to have an eventual 20,000 machines.

"There is going to be overcapacity in the market very soon," said Stephen S. Cole, president and chief executive officer of Cash Station Inc., Chicago. "The market can't support as many machines as people think."

"We are probably reaching a point where, in the next few years, there will be a lot of redistribution of machines rather than just slamming them in," said Mark Walter, a management consultant based in Lake, Mich.

Still, the larger banks can benefit from their "sheer size," Mr. Walter said. He likened the banks' buying power with the ATM suppliers to the way car rental companies deal with automakers.

Diebold executives said banks stand to make further gains in the off- premises market as part of a wider range of services to retailers, also including loans and lines of credit and cash management.

"The most successful banks offer a lot of other potential value as one- stop shops for the merchant," said Robert Nemens of Diebold's worldwide marketing organization.

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