At Rockville-based USTravel Systems Inc., the third-largest travel agency in the nation, the focus is no longer on acquisitions -- it's on making them work.

"In 1986 and '87 we spent 100 percent of our resources on acquisitions," said Ralph Manker, president of USTravel.

"Right now probably 75 percent of our resources are spent on operations and 25 percent on acquisitions ... We're still looking to fill in some pockets of the country where we need a presence."

Since Manker and Peter M. Sontag, the company's chairman and chief executive, founded USTravel in 1986, it has used cash and debt to acquire 36 independent travel agencies, most with more than one office. It is affiliated with thousands of others.

USTravel now sells $1.3 billion worth of in airline tickets and travel packages annually at all its agencies, Sontag said, and hopes to add another $350 million to that total from now until the end of 1991.

Its revenue, like that of its competitors, is about 9 percent of the face value of its ticket sales.

"We've {acquired agencies} so often, so many times, that now we have a group of people that does nothing but acquire agencies," Sontag said. "Therefore, Ralph and I have had an increasing amount of time to think about other things."

The "other things" include consolidating USTravel's computer systems, employee benefit programs and accounting procedures -- pulling all the acquisitions into a single, cohesive unit.

Sontag said streamlining operations will aid the company's internal growth, measured at about $10 million a month in sales of airline tickets and vacation packages.

He said the consolidation also will make it more competitive in bidding for the national and government travel accounts that the firm is aggressively pursuing.

As part of this effort, Manker recently moved from being secretary, treasurer and general counsel to president, with more responsibility for operations than finances.

"We grew to $1.3 billion in company operations in three years. It would have been impossible to consolidate at the same time," Manker said.

"We couldn't sit down and consolidate the companies because we didn't know what the companies would look like."

One of its rivals thinks that may be USTravel's fatal flaw.

Keeping the entrepreneurs who founded the agencies that USTravel acquired is a good idea, but it's unwieldy, said Dan Bohan, vice president of Falls Church-based Omega World Travel, a competitor of USTravel.

People who used to run their own companies are not easy to direct, he said.

"They're selling USTS as a product, yet they've got a guy in Seattle doing one thing and a guy in Connecticut doing another thing," Bohan said.

"You have to leave as many decisions as decentralized as possible. The back office is the one thing you have to centralize, and I just don't think it's working."

"I can't think of anything tougher than to to integrate USTS," he said. "I give it 12 months before it's sold to Carlson or Lifeco or American Express {the three biggest travel-service companies}. Most people think that's been {Sontag's} goal all along."

But Sontag continues to plan for the future, starting new programs for USTravel agencies. He is planning to change the names of the agencies that retained their original identities to USTravel, and to start a franchise program for company affiliates.

The company, 81 percent of which is owned by PS Group Inc. of San Diego, now operates 448 offices nationwide and has affiliate relationships around the world with more than 1,200 agencies that pay a fee to the company in exchange for some of its services.

"I want to to take the company into the three billion dollar range," he said. "I'm not selling anything."