NationsBank Corp. chief executive Hugh L. McColl said this week that his company is ready to take a break from making large acquisitions.

Speaking to an audience of 900 here at the annual Montgomery Securities investment conference, Mr. McColl said that $240 billion-asset NationsBank is busy completing its $15.5 billion deal to buy Barnett Banks Inc. of Jacksonville, Fla. That deal is scheduled to close in the first quarter.

"Right now we're focusing on integrating Barnett. That will occupy us for about 18 months," said Mr. McColl. "We'll make no acquisitions you could notice, maybe pick up some small things."

Since Labor Day 1996, NationsBank has announced three deals that startled the industry with their size. In January, NationsBank paid $9.6 billion, or 2.6 times book value, to buy Boatman's Bancshares of St. Louis. In June, the nation's third-largest bank said it would buy Montgomery Securities for $1.2 billion. That deal is slated to close by the start of the fourth quarter. And on Aug. 29 NationsBank said it would purchase Barnett for 4.1 times book value.

NationsBank has, through these and previous deals, achieved the size and capital necessary to outbid the competition for any company it deems a must-have, analysts said. These moves have also helped the Charlotte, N.C.- based company achieve a national reach whose market cap is topped only by Citicorp.

In his drive to ink deals regardless of the price constraints set by Wall Street, Mr. McColl has become a favorite of investors.

"We are the buyer of choice, thanks to our growth strategy and track record, and second, we are able to pay the highest price, thanks to our size." Mr. McColl said.

Consolidation will continue despite high prices, he added, and continue "faster than anyone thought (it) would."

Though some banking companies may elect to build their businesses internally, Mr. McColl argued that only through acquisitions can banks achieve the size necessary to compete.

"I think everyone here is aware that prices have gotten a bit high. But are they too high?" Mr. McColl asked. "I've said for a long time that, in most of life's endeavors, you're either growing or dying. And I still believe that."

Mr. McColl charmed the audience with anecdotes told in his distinctive southern drawl.

Addressing bankers hesitant to sell their franchises, he quoted the poet Robert Frost, urging: "Take care to sell your horse before it dies."

Once again, he indicated his interest in acquiring a company in California, but said his bank can enter the state without a major acquisition. NationsBank could build a "toehold" franchise, he noted.

Mr. McColl's aggressive acquisition strategy does have its critics, although none were willing to be quoted.

These critics said it is likely that NationsBank would have to sell many more Barnett branches than it had previously indicated, raising questions as to why it would pay so much for a company it would have to shrink considerably.

In the deal to buy Montgomery Securities, some critics said NationsBank would pay a lot of money for a company that is acknowledged to be strong in researching and underwriting only high-tech media and financial services companies. If the market for either of these industries levels off, then Mr. McColl would have paid a bundle for a niche shop, some investment bankers said.

Despite the naysayers, Mr. McColl has virtual carte blanche to turn NationsBank into the country's top financial services company.

After he concluded his speech, he asked investors in the audience if they had any questions. Not a single hand went up.

"You mean I've answered them all?" Mr. McColl asked.

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