Chairman Edward E. Crutchfield can barely contain his enthusiasm about the changes he has wrought at First Union Corp. in 1997.

After all, it was shaping up as a big year for him even before he capped it by negotiating the industry's priciest acquisition to date.

"We now offer everything Merrill Lynch offers. We're out of the star-gazing phase. We're in the get-it-done phase," Mr. Crutchfield exulted in a recent interview.

In July, the $144 billion-asset First Union made a deal to seize the No. 1 share of the coveted Virginia/Maryland/Washington, D.C. market by agreeing to buy Signet Banking Corp., Richmond, Va.

A month later, Mr. Crutchfield accelerated the Charlotte, N.C., banking company's move into investment banking with a pact to buy Wheat First Butcher Singer, also of Richmond.

The capstone was last month's announcement that First Union would pay $16.6 billion for CoreStates Financial Corp., Philadelphia, a deal that will substantially boost First Union's already-impressive Northeast presence.

At the same time, Mr. Crutchfield has been overseeing a costly redesign of the company's retail operations. In addition, First Union spent $615 million on technology in 1997.

But price is no object for Mr. Crutchfield. "Getting the technology right and the product set right is key," he said.

All this has certainly drawn some jeers. Thomas K. Brown, an analyst with Donaldson Lufkin & Jenrette and a harsh critic of First Union, calls the company's 1997 acquisitions "permanently dilutive."

Mr. Crutchfield is not thrown by the critics.

He is less concerned with the price paid for an acquisition than the long-term value a deal brings to his organization, he said.

"I wasn't out trying to see if I could pay more than anybody else," he said of the CoreStates deal. "But I don't get carried away with the subject of price. It's all what you can do" with (the acquisitions.)

Looking back on 1997, Mr. Crutchfield said he doesn't define the year by the acquisitions announced. Rather, he sees 1997 as the year First Union started to come of age.

With his eye focused on building a Merrill Lynch-like national banking company, Mr. Crutchfield can look back on the last 12 months and see significant headway.

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