In electronic banking, BankAmerica Corp. is struggling to be a nimble giant.
Its position as one of the nation's largest banks brings some advantages, such as ready access to a large customer base. However, the size of the organization can also hinder business units that must move quickly.
To circumvent this problem, BankAmerica formed an interactive banking unit in May to deal solely with assembling a remote delivery strategy and bringing it to market.
The unit is not unlike direct bank and alternative delivery groups set up by other institutions. BankAmerica's San Francisco neighbor, Wells Fargo & Co., more than a year ago created a similar group.
Although the idea for a separate unit is not a novel one, BankAmerica executives insist the group's activities will set the bank apart.
"We are giving notice to the world that we intend to be a driving force" in electronic banking, said Marty Stein, a vice chairman and head of technology operations for BankAmerica.
The bank has arguably already taken a significant leadership role in home banking, joining rumored merger partner NationsBank to purchase Meca Software Inc. in May. The pair is urging other banks to buy into the alliance, or to set up PC-based financial services using Meca's Managing Your Money software.
BankAmerica's new interactive banking unit oversees Meca, as well as all of BankAmerica's work on PC-based home banking services, its proprietary delivery channels, and its research in smart card technology.
The bank tapped Jeanine Brown - a prominent financial reporting executive with close to 20 years experience at BankAmerica, Wells Fargo, and Crocker National Bank - to head the group.
Ms. Brown leads a team of five senior vice presidents and 100 other employees - many of whom were recruited from software companies or on-line services. The group manages product delivery, marketing, technology, business development, and operations.
Ms. Brown reports directly to Mr. Stein and his fellow vice chairman for the retail bank, Thomas E. Peterson.
She said that the interest in on-line development affects the uppermost ranks of the bank in several ways. "The folks on the 40th floor are all PC users," she said.
Explaining the decision to choose Ms. Brown for the unit's top spot, Mr. Stein said that her traditional banking background and understanding of the bank's culture would help her to head off the "technology disconnect" that can often take root at large operations.
Moreover, he said she would not get so wrapped up in the technology that she would lose sight of the bank's goals.
"Tom and I do not want to develop products for a limited number of early adopters," Mr. Stein said. "If it doesn't pass the Jeanine test, it probably wouldn't work."
"She's one of the smartest people I ever met," he added.
Seamus McMahon, a managing vice president for First Manhattan Consulting, said that Ms. Brown's unit represents "a much more senior team" than has been assembled at other banks, enabling the bank to push through its plans faster.
BankAmerica might not seem to be pushing the envelope as hard as, say, Wells with its on-line account access, or First Union Corp. with its comprehensive Web site.
But, based on its performance in other electronic banking arenas, observers are certain the bank will make its mark.
Thomas C. Byrne, a senior vice president and director of retail marketing at West Coast rival Sanwa Bank, noted that BankAmerica entered the ATM business late, but its Versateller network has become one of the strongest of its kind.
BankAmerica first offered banking by personal computer in 1981. It currently is used by less than 1% of the bank's customer base, which is consistent with adoption numbers of most institutions.
With Managing Your Money, the bank hopes to boost this number substantially without having to rely on a third party like Intuit Inc. or Microsoft Corp. for an undifferentiated product.
But with all the banks flocking to sign on with these two software vendors, some see a rocky road ahead for Meca's bank owners.
"Banks have thus far not shown as much interest in Managing Your Money as BankAmerica and NationsBank had hoped," said Edward L. Neumann, a principal at Washington-based Furash & Co.
Mr. McMahon of First Manhattan characterized the effort as "a bit of a fizzle," saying that other banks have little need to buy an equity position in the partnership.
Ms. Brown said the bank plans to announce new bank partners in the Meca joint venture by next month.
Meca gives the bank another opportunity to leverage its vaunted strength in processing. According to a recent study by Salomon Brothers, BankAmerica clears about 10% of the nation's checks every night.
"Meca clearly allows us to utilize our own bill payment capability," Mr. Brown said.
Since the group's founding and the Meca purchase, Ms. Brown and her team have been busy in other areas as well.
The team launched a pilot of a new touch-tone bill payment service last month, which will be more aggressively marketed by the bank, according to Ms. Brown.
BankAmerica already offers balance inquiry, account transfer, and limited payment capability in four states, according to the Salomon study. About 65% of BankAmerica's loan applications in 1994 were approved over the phone, the study said.
BankAmerica also has a closed smart card pilot running in its Concord, Calif., business campus.
The bank has been working with regulators to help push the technology forward, but Ms. Brown said there is "still a lot of work to do to gain consumer acceptance." The bank is a member of the Smart Card Forum.
In August, BankAmerica signed an agreement to set up a site on America Online that by yearend will give customers access to banking information.
BankAmerica, which observers said was the first bank to set up shop on the Internet, also upgraded its site on the World Wide Web earlier this month, transforming it from an "ugly place holder" - as Mr. Byrne of Sanwa described the site when it first went up in September 1994 - to a more comprehensive on-line home base with better graphics.
"There's a customer base that is more comfortable with an on-line service," Ms. Brown said.
The new Internet site, constructed around a "Build Your Own Bank" theme, allows customers to enter personal information so the bank can target specific services, products, and promotions.
Customers can also apply on-line for a credit card or home loan, although they cannot yet perform transactions.
The site also features a number of tools - like calculators to help students budget for college loans - and links into other types of businesses, like real estate agents throughout the country.
Mr. Neumann of Furash praised BankAmerica for trying to stay on the leading edge. He applauded the bank's effort to support a variety of delivery channels rather than betting on one.
The bank plans to integrate its varied initiatives. For example, by next year, BankAmerica hopes to connect Managing Your Money to its proprietary network, and ultimately to its America Online site. Eventually, BankAmerica intends to link its Internet site to all of its customer services.
BankAmerica will be feeling more pressure to cut costs through these alternative means if Wells goes through with its proposed acquisition of First Interstate Bancorp, Mr. McMahon said. That merger would allow Wells to achieve more scale and run more cheaply than BankAmerica, while also leveraging Wells' supermarket branching and First Interstate's telephone banking expertise, he said. Meanwhile, BankAmerica has little chance of duplicating Wells' in-market move.
"If I were Tom Peterson, I would feel like someone just poured water on my gunpowder," Mr. McMahon said.
Overall, Ms. Brown is trying to keep her group focused on the work and not "the hype and the chaos" that surround the alternative delivery market.
"We've tried to be as educated as we can and not overreact," she said. "We try to stay focused on what we want, as opposed to what competitors are doing."
"Some banks are looking at this long term, and some are jumping the first thing they see,"said Paul Harrison, Meca's chief executive, noting that BankAmerica is doing the former.
Mr. Stein said that this work would "augment rather than replace" the bank's current structure.
"This is just my opinion, but when we go into the next century, I don't see us having a totally branchless banking system," Mr. Stein said.