Brokerage giant

PaineWebber Group

( PWJ) said Friday that it has inked a deal to buy privately held

J.C. Bradford & Co.

for $620 million in cash.

"This combination, which is fully complementary to our private client and capital markets business, will accelerate our asset-gathering strategy," said Donald B. Marron, chairman and chief executive of PaineWebber, in a statement. He cited Nashville, Tenn.-based J.C. Bradford's presence in a high-growth region as a key aspect to the deal.

Bradford, founded in 1927, is one of the largest regional brokerage firms in the country. It employs more than 900 brokers in 14 states and manages more than $46 billion in assets.

Bradford reportedly began searching for a buyer when

Merrill Lynch & Co.

( MER), the biggest brokerage in the world, said it would begin offering online trading for $29.95, a move that imperiled J.C. Bradford's competitive position.

"With the addition of

PaineWebber's vast technological resources, research coverage and complementary product line, we'll be able to provide our clients with an increasingly higher level of advice, service and results," said Jeff Powell, chief executive of Bradford, in a statement.

Senior Bradford executives will assume roles with New York-based PaineWebber and assist in the transition.