Hoping to tap into some of the fastest-growing markets in the nation, SouthTrust Corp. said it plans to increase its assets in Texas nearly eightfold, to $3 billion, by the end of 2000.

The Birmingham, Ala.-based banking company said it views Texas- especially the area between Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio-as a prime market in which to quickly expand.

"There's a lot of wealth in that triangle," said Butch Crouch, director of investor relations for the $39 billion-asset company. "We see population inflow, per capita income growth, and business expansion in these markets."

SouthTrust said it would try to reach its goal mostly through internal growth, and not acquisitions, said David C. Stumpf, an analyst with A.G. Edwards in St. Louis.

"It's an extremely aggressive goal," Mr. Stumpf said. "They take a very nontraditional approach to growth."

The banking company has achieved most of its success through methods other than acquisitions, according to Mr. Crouch. Companywide, 80% of loan growth and 73% of asset growth have come from within.

"We've got the troops focused on internal growth," Mr. Crouch said. However, he acknowledged that to quickly reach $3 billion of assets in Texas would probably require some acquisitions.

"It would be a stretch otherwise," he said.

SouthTrust has been doing business in Texas since it opened its first loan production office there in 1996. Since then it has generated $700 million of loans.

The banking company closed its first Texas bank deal last year with the purchase of $87 million-asset SecurityBank Texas of Arlington. It added to its presence in the state this year with the March purchase of $138 million-asset Langham Creek National Bank in Houston.

SouthTrust's general distaste for paying what it considers steep prices for acquisitions may have cost it a chance to almost double its Texas presence recently. The company was rebuffed in April after it made an unsolicited offer to buy CNBT Bancshares, a $378 million-asset banking company headquartered in Houston. At the time B. Ralph Williams, CNBT's president and chief executive office, called SouthTrust's offer "inadequate."

Mr. Stumpf, the analyst, said SouthTrust is "opportunistic, but not overly aggressive" and has proved it can grow internally.

SouthTrust entered North Carolina by acquiring a thrift in 1991 with about $500 million of assets, Mr. Stumpf said. Since then, the bank's assets in that state have grown to roughly $3 billion.

SouthTrust, which operates more than 600 branches in seven states, has developed a strong sales culture that focuses on snaring commercial customers. Its sales techniques are not sophisticated, but very successful, Mr. Stumpf said.

"They make a small acquisition, put their people in the marketplace, and then start making more calls than anybody else," he added.

The bank often offers rates significantly lower than competitors, he said.

"They are very aggressive in going after relationships, and price is one of their calling cards," Mr. Stumpf said.

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