Few have altered the landscape of banking as forcefully as Hugh L. McColl Jr., the dynamic head of NationsBank Corp.

After more than 50 mergers, Mr. McColl presides over a bank that in just a decade has vaulted from a little-known southeastern regional in Charlotte, N.C., to the top ranks of the industry.

In September, he snared the acknowledged top prize in banking when NationsBank won a lively bidding contest and agreed to pay $15.5 billion for Barnett Banks Inc., the big Florida independent.

But no one thinks Mr. McColl, 62, is finished. From a plane on the way to Florida after the Barnett deal, he spoke of California.

"One of every eight Americans lives in California. We wish we were in California," he said. "Now, we don't know if we will ever get to California, but that doesn't keep us from wishing."

That kind of vision defines Mr. McColl, whose wish lists have a way of materializing.

Ten years ago, Mr. McColl declared: "We want to build a bank that stretches from Baltimore south to Miami and west to El Paso." He has.

In 1988, he pulled off what is generally conceded to have been the most brilliant merger in banking annals-the acquisition of First RepublicBank Corp. of Texas, a failing institution with $32.5 billion of assets.

In a single stroke, Mr. McColl doubled the size of his company and decisively altered the balance of power in the banking industry. And he did it for a small price through the tax benefits available in a bailout.

This year, besides the Barnett deal, NationsBank has acquired Montgomery Securities, thus moving forcefully into the investment banking realm.

Along the way, Mr. McColl, a native South Carolinian, has gotten a reputation as shrewd, demanding, outspoken-and, despite personal charm, lacking a few of the usual graces that have marked southern banking.

His philosophy has been straightforward: "Banks and bankers themselves have to change," he said in 1989. "Our industry is plagued with the classic problems of overcapacity-shrinking margins, high cost structures, inefficiencies and too much management.

"Consolidation should mean not only fewer banks but fewer people in banking. And that will be good, so our customers won't be paying for something they don't need."

Updating those views a few months ago, he said: "There isn't enough revenue for everyone to keep growing at the numbers at which they have been growing. And there is the added factor of technology updates. There is going to be ever-increasing pressure to consolidate, particularly among the top 25 banks."

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