As J. Stanley Mackin sees it, there's only one way to approach banking: "You must grow or you die," he says.

With that in mind, Mr. Mackin's Regions Financial Corp. pulled off 28 acquisitions over the past five years, tripling its assets, to $18.9 billion, and emerging as a major force in the Southeast.

Now, the Birmingham, Ala.-based company is entering a new, more introspective era. Mr. Mackin, chairman and chief executive officer since 1990, is preparing to step down. And his hand-picked successor, Carl E. Jones Jr., is mapping out a strategy based more on internal growth than on dealmaking.

"Acquisitions have been a large part of our success story," said Mr. Jones. "That may happen again, but you just can't count on it."

Mr. Jones, who was named president on Jan. 15 and is to become CEO next January, plans to rev up Regions' existing businesses-which range from mortgage lending to factoring-and to encourage more cooperation among the company's 66 banks. He already heads a "quality council" that is scouring the units for strong practices to replicate throughout the organization.

"We can't sit back here and just wait to find another bank to buy," Mr. Jones, 56, said in a recent interview. "Our focus really will be on internal growth."

To be sure, Regions is not swearing off deals. The company has six pending, totaling $1.1 billion of assets. And there is no plan to stop shopping.

But a shift in course is clearly under way. Regions, said Mr. Jones, must "pause and reflect" and "learn to manage its size."

Under Stanley Mackin, there was precious little pausing.

In 1990, he took charge of what was then known as First Alabama Bancshares-and launched a headlong drive toward big-time regional status.

Waving off naysayers who predicted Regions would itself be swallowed whole, Mr. Mackin moved to position his company for long-term independence.

Starting with a company of less than $7 billion of assets that operated almost exclusively in Alabama, he fanned out into Tennessee, Louisiana, Florida, and Georgia.

Last year, the dealmaking reached a dizzying pace. The company bought eight banks, including its largest deal ever-for $3.2 billion-asset First National Bancorp of Gainesville, Ga.

All the while, profits have been stellar, with Regions maintaining a 25- year streak of record operating earnings. All but one of Mr. Mackin's deals, First National, have been nondilutive, and analysts are expecting Regions to post double-digit gains this year in per-share earnings.

"They've demonstrated they have been pretty smart acquirers," said R. Harold Schroeder, vice president at Keefe, Bruyette & Woods Inc.

As Regions begins to look inward, its departing chief and the incoming Mr. Jones stand as a study in contrasts.

Mr. Mackin is an expansive, dyed-in-the-wool entrepreneur who began his career in home building. "All I ever thought about was constructing something, not sitting there trying to tightly manage it," he said.

Mr. Jones, on the other hand, is a career bank manager with a quiet, almost laid-back manner. Until 1995, he had spent his entire professional life at a Mobile, Ala., bank that Regions acquired in 1981. That institution, Merchants National, had carried out only two deals before Regions arrived-an acquisition in 1973 and a merger in 1974.

Mr. Jones, who became president of Merchants in 1978, continued to run the operation directly until two years ago, when he began to focus exclusively on his role in a close-knit team of executives helping Mr. Mackin manage all of Regions.

Despite their differences, the two men show tremendous admiration for one another. Mr. Jones calls Mr. Mackin his "mentor, coach, and hero." Mr. Mackin, in turn, credits Mr. Jones with "a great sense of integrity-a good moral compass."

Certainly, the two men see eye-to-eye on the need for the quality council. It resulted from many conversations between the two men about Regions' future.

Because the company has tried to maintain a community bank feel to each of its banks-maintaining bank presidents and separate boards of directors in each locale-practices and programs vary widely.

The council, made up of a dozen key executives, is trying to make sure that the most effective practices of each bank are used more widely throughout the organization. For example, Mr. Jones said, he admires the sales structure of the Georgia operations and hopes to replicate it elsewhere.

"Us folks in Alabama and Louisiana and Tennessee need to learn a little about that," he said.

Retention of retail customers is another focus of the council.

"When somebody wanted to close an account, we used to ask 'Well, do you have any checks outstanding?'" Mr. Jones said ruefully. "We're not going to do that anymore." Now, workshops are being held and employees trained in how to keep the customer from closing his or her account.

Ultimately, the fruits of the council's work could be evident in the company's performance numbers. Mr. Jones is counting on the effort to help improve Regions' efficiency ratio-noninterest expenses as a percentage of revenues-to less than 50% from the current 56%.

Meanwhile, Mr. Jones will be seeking to keep up the momentum in Regions' major lines of business.

Primarily a consumer lender, the bank continues to expand its residential mortgage business, which accounts for half its $8.1 billion consumer loan portfolio. And the Georgia acquisition, which included a fledgling finance company called America's Loan Source, has brought Regions into the booming market for subprime mortgages and home improvement loans.

"We think it can be a good source of loan growth in the future," said Robert P. Houston, executive vice president and comptroller. "We're hoping to develop that into an important source of revenue."

The company is also working to beef up its commercial lending, which amounts to about 32% of its loan portfolio.

And like many other major banking companies, Regions is working hard to boost fee income. Already strong in mortgage servicing, it is now giving increased attention to its trust business, beefing up the sales force and establishing an incentive system.

Regions is also pushing into some nontraditional areas. An example is Regions Investment Co., a small concern that handles discount brokerage operations, trading, and underwriting of public finance obligations. This unit, too, could be a source of more fee income.

Then there's Interstate Billing Service, a commercial accounts receivable factoring company that does business in 25 states. Regions acquired this unit in 1995.

As Mr. Jones digs into all this, he brings with him a strong sense of caution, something he may have developed during problems with oil-related lending in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Calling himself "a CEO apprentice," he said he would move slowly in pushing for change, while still having much to learn about Regions' operations.

But Mr. Mackin, exuding the confidence he displayed in so many acquisitions, has little doubt that he has picked the right successor. Mr. Jones, he said, is the right man at the right time.

"It's almost perfect," Mr. Mackin said.

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