NationsBank Corp. chairman Hugh L. McColl Jr. is intent on opening a route to California, but perhaps more through marketing and technology than acquisition.

Calling the state "the foreign country I'm most interested in," Mr. McColl explained his West Coast obsession and his growing interest in electronic service alternatives to more than 200 financial analysts in Atlanta this week.

"One in eight Americans live in California, and until I get to California, I couldn't give a damn about foreign countries," the North Carolina-based banker said.

Mr. McColl's desire to go all the way West - he'd get only as far as New Mexico through the pending acquisition of Boatmen's Bancshares - reflects his belief that continually adding retail customers is the key to revving up profits.

He said NationsBank has three ways to pursue the desired growth: sell more products to current customers, acquire banks, and reach customers electronically - customers like the 150,000 in four states that have signed up with it in the last seven months to bank via personal computer.

There are limits to internal growth. And though $188 billion-asset NationsBank would enter contiguous midwestern markets through the $9.5 billion Boatmen's acquisition, Mr. McColl was unable last year to get very far in negotiations with San Francisco-based BankAmerica Corp. Mr. McColl, 61, then said he was not sure he would conclude a California acquisition before he retires.

Technology could be the missing link.

Speaking to the Atlanta Society of Financial Analysts, Mr. McColl said, "It's not an either/or choice of expanding through acquisitions or by investing in technology."

James Marks, an analyst with CS First Boston Corp., said a strategy of entering California via technology rather than a big merger "is not only viable, it's a wonder why banks haven't done it on a wider basis.

"They can use a combination of intelligent direct marketing plus a variety of channels - ATM networks, on-line banking, and telephone centers. There's a lot of potential to use that methodology to expand anywhere they want."

However, Mr. Marks said it is likely NationsBank would make a small acquisition of "some financial institution," then expand quickly through the technology.

"NationsBank's already here in many products," said Joe Bowler, treasurer of $2.5 billion-asset Westamerica Bancorp. in San Rafael, Calif. "Hearing this news doesn't really change what we do," he said. "There's so much competition here, it's important to establish your own niche."

John J. Mason, an analyst with Interstate/Johnson Lane Inc. who attended Mr. McColl's appearance in Atlanta, said he thought the comments about California were "an excellent response. Before he goes overseas, that's where he needs to concentrate.

"And if he thinks the way I think he does about S&Ls, he has no interest in buying any in California," Mr. Mason added.

To go coast to coast, NationsBank must cut costs while expanding the ways customers can reach the bank.

Mr. McColl said the company sold or closed more than 100 offices this year and will do more of that. Including Boatmen's 1,470 automated teller machines, NationsBank plans to have 6,300 running by the end of 1997.

NationsBank also plans to deploy automated loan machines next year, though Mr. McColl finds them cumbersome. "It took me 14 minutes to apply for a loan," he said of this new breed of kiosk. "I thought it was slow, but you can get the check right there."

He noted that some experts say most people can complete transactions at the ATM-like machines in only eight minutes.

Grocery-store branches are another means of delivery-system diversification. NationsBank has 180 in-store facilities, up from 10 in 1994, and is negotiating "major contracts" in several states, Mr. McColl said.

Mr. McColl, who has been NationsBank's chairman since 1992 when the company was created from the merger of NCNB Corp. and C&S/Sovran Corp., also said he would like to buy a "small" investment banking firm "outside New York City" by 1998. NationsBank would like to handle initial public offerings for small and middle-market business customers, Mr. McColl said. But no deal is likely soon, he said, because "no one's for sale."

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