Looking to breathe new life into its 4,500 branches and sharply increase profitability by selling more products, Bank of America Corp. announced Friday that it is launching a "major overhaul" of its banking centers.

Three designs are planned for different types of centers. One emphasizes financial planning, another simple transactions, and the third traditional banking services. Location will determine which type of center is built.

The project is beginning with 22 centers in Atlanta, two of which will be built from scratch. The $680 billion-asset Charlotte, N.C., banking company said the final cost of the overhaul is unclear because it is just getting started. A spokesman said, however, that the most elaborate of three types of centers to be built in Atlanta will have a budget of roughly $750,000 per location to complete their transformation.

Bank of America said it hopes to boost revenues with the new centers by pulling more financial services advisers from back offices and placing them in certain branches, adding technology, and putting a stronger focus on customer service.

The company, which recently announced it would cut 10,000 jobs, or about 7% of its work force, said it does not plan to hire employees as part of the effort. Costs are to be offset by anticipated gains in fee income.

This is certainly not a new concept. Financial services companies have been trying a wide array of branch designs to create a better environment for cross-selling and thereby boost revenues. Some companies, including Wells Fargo & Co. in San Francisco, have gone so far as to create a mall-like atmosphere, where customers can drop off dry cleaning or buy coffee and transact routine banking business.

"I think Bank of America, like all the banks, have to sell more products in order to keep their customers," said Ronald Mandle, an analyst with Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. in New York. "This is another step in that regard making it easier and clearer to customers that they can get all their financial services needs satisfied at a bank."

Citigroup Inc. launched an effort last year to invigorate sales at its branches. Citi's branch employees were assigned a new pay structure under which more of their pay comes from commissions and fees tied to referrals.

First Union Corp. of Charlotte, N.C., spent more than $100 million in the last few years to retain branch employees and develop its electronically oriented Future Bank program. This summer the company also completed a renovation of 297 of its consumer branches aimed at emphasizing small business services. In those retooled branches, employees with more training in small business products were added.

Bank of America said that in addition to bringing a new level of expertise to the financial centers, bankers will meet customers at the door to guide them to sales people or other banking services. Televisions will be playing, tuned to financial news networks. And ATMs equipped with Internet access will be added.

One consultant sees changes in technology and service at the branch level as a necessary way for big banks to evolve. "These strategies are not going to suddenly attract thousands of new customers overnight," said Edward Furash, a retail banking consultant and chairman of Monument Financial Group in Alexandria, Va. "These changes that they are contemplating are changes the entire industry must make in order to meet consumer expectations and be productive."

"What is different about Bank of America is that they are not doing this out of fear or to correct earnings problems. They are doing this as the right way to modernize their business," he said.


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