The merger frenzy is having mixed effects on banking executives. Some are ducking for cover, while others are honing their sales skills to deal with reluctant potential partners.

The days of picking up the phone and casually introducing yourself to another lender are over, said Mack I. Whittle, chairman of Carolina First Bank, Greenville, S.C.

"It's getting so that they don't want to take a call or open a Fed Ex from you," Mr. Whittle said at a merger and acquisitions conference last week sponsored by American Banker and the Strategic Research Institute.

Now bankers must be creative, looking for ways to capitalize on the vulnerabilities or the inclinations of directors and management, Mr. Whittle said. "We're keeping a target list" that, in addition to financial information, tracks officers' age, health, and any event, like a departure, that may affect operations, he said.

Such information may provide an edge to buyers.

While some banks see the current situation as an opportunity for expansion, others are hunkering down.

"There is something of a bunker mentality out there," said David R. Versaw, vice president of investment banking at Friedman, Billings, Ramsey & Co., Arlington, Va.

With so many potential acquirers on the prowl, banks that might have been interested in partnerships are now pulling back.

The fear is that a large, undesirable purchaser will swoop in with a big counter-offer but devastate the business after it has been bought. "There's real fear of 'bid jumping' out there," said Donald W. Delson, a managing director with BT Alex. Brown & Sons.

These reservations could complicate what might otherwise be sensible in- market deals, like the pairing of Southern National Corp. and BB&T Financial Corp., Mr. Delson said. Southern National and BB&T merged in March 1995.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that cautious bankers are not overreacting. One expansion-minded bank chief executive officer carries a modeling system in his briefcase that, when market developments occur, automatically evaluates how other operations may fit with his.

Even veteran acquirers find the atmosphere a bit overheated. A rising tide of euphoria is "making it harder to look for value," said John A. Kanas, chairman of North Fork Bancorp, Mattituck, N.Y.

Many bankers are refining their courtship techniques to stand out in the growing crush of suitors.

North Fork can play up its experience as a capable acquirer of commercial banks and thrifts. It helps to be able to say "we've done it a number of times" successfully, Mr. Kanas said.

Veteran and novice dealmakers can improve their chances by becoming sharp negotiators, said Karen Edwards, a managing director with Friedman Billings. "It's in the interest of the buyer to offer a high price to begin with."

Pre-offer steps are invaluable as a way of gaining a foothold, Ms. Edward said. "It's very different when you approach someone you've had a relationship with."

To foster alliances, banks can take a position in a potential target's stock or help the target complete an initial stock sale. Such moves build goodwill and provide the investing banks with better access to information about the target, Mr. Whittle said.

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