Four months is ample time for First Union Corp. to absorb the operations of Signet Banking Corp., according to analysts and bankers.

"I do not see it as a particularly risky proposition," said Nancy A. Bush, analyst at Brown Brothers, Harriman & Co. in New York.

The subject of technical integrations is topical because of Wells Fargo & Co.'s recent admission that its overly aggressive schedule for absorbing First Interstate Bancorp was a major cause of second-quarter earnings troubles.

Bankers said they feel increasing pressure from investors to speed integrations so that cost efficiencies can be realized more quickly. Though such pressure is not always bad, it may be pushing some to commit themselves to unrealistic conversion schedules, observers said.

First Union officials said they are comfortable with the time they have allotted for the Signet integration.

Charles "Skip" Klapheke, senior vice president of automation and operations at the Charlotte, N.C., banking company, conceded that the integration will have to proceed "kind of fast" but quickly added that First Union has ample experience in converting acquired banks.

Indeed, in the last 10 years it has acquired 74 institutions, increasing its assets to $143 billion.

Along the way, it has learned valuable lessons about converting acquisitions to its technology platform, and each of these lessons has been formally recorded.

"We have continued to lower the amount of energy it takes to pull these deals off because we have eliminated sources of surprises," Mr. Klapheke said.

He noted that First Union absorbed the operations of $35 billion-asset First Fidelity Bancorp. in six months.

Using that as a yardstick, First Union should have little trouble keeping to its four-month schedule with $12 billion-asset Signet.

William Bradway, analyst at Meridien Research Inc., Needham, Mass., agreed, saying First Union has "a very well-oiled acquisition and consolidation process."

But sometimes the most experienced acquirers can be subjected to the toughest expectations.

Fleet Financial Group, for example, last year drew complaints from investors that it was integrating the operations of Shawmut National Corp. and National Westminster Bancorp too slowly. The company, which has made more than 50 acquisitions in the last decade, last month completed the integrations as scheduled.

"Fleet is a very efficient acquirer," said Mr. Bradway. "But taking on two $30 billion banks within a couple of months of each other is a lot to swallow."

Executives from Fleet and First Union agreed that one of the keys to a successful integration is communicating clearly with bank employees.

"We get the staff fully engaged and have full disclosure of information," Mr. Klapheke said. "We get both partners committed to success, and when that happens, we eliminate an awful lot of risk."

Mr. Klapheke said First Union soon will assemble a steering committee and name a project leader for the Signet integration, which is expected to reduce the combined bank's costs by $242 million per year.

Once the deal gets regulatory approval, First Union will begin the process of converting Signet to the common banking system. First Union officials declined to say how many Signet systems would need to be converted.

Electronic Data Systems Corp. handles Signet's core processing. The future of that 10-year, $400 million arrangement, which stretches through 1999, is unclear, but history gives some indication of what might happen.

When it was acquired several years ago by First Union, First Fidelity had a $480 million deal with EDS. That contract was canceled, and EDS took on new duties at First Union.

The steering committee also will determine the future of a 400,000- square-foot technology center Signet completed last year. The site, which employs 1,300 people, has room for expansion, said Edward E. Crutchfield, chairman at First Union.

During a conference call, he said First Union has been in the hunt for a site to house 1,000 employees, and the Richmond, Va.-based facility "could work out well. I haven't even laid eyes on the center, but on paper it looks like it will make a lot of sense."

The bank also has its eye on the technology behind Signet's Loan By Check program, in which the bank originates unsecured loans through direct mail campaigns.

Though First Union is likely to scrap the unsecured loan product-it only recently began turning a profit-it will probably make use of the client/server technology it is based upon.

"We love the technology," Mr. Crutchfield said.

"It is our intention to keep and use the technology and the people that Signet has so greatly built, and expand it through the rest of First Union."

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