The Internet has forced financial services companies to create brand images in a very short time, Bank One Corp.'s top retail executive told a conference last week.

"We don't have the luxury of those great American brands like Ford, Coca-Cola, Kraft, and McDonald's that were founded in kinder, gentler, less competitive times, when a business generation lasted at least 30 years," said Kenneth T. Stevens, chairman and chief executive officer of Bank One's retail group.

Internet time makes it difficult to plan things "a mere six weeks out," he added.

In response, Mr. Stevens said, Bank One has gotten fast. It took only a month and a half to create an Internet-based system that can approve a home equity loan within 50 seconds of when a customer applies via the Internet.

In mid-1997, Chicago-based Bank One had no presence on the Internet. A year later, said Mr. Stevens, the $235 billion-asset company had signed up 100,000 Internet customers. It has a goal of 400,000 by yearend.

"The great thing about the Internet is that it lets you reach customers in so many different ways," he said in an interview last week after speaking at American Banker's Best Practices in Retail Financial Services Symposium in Orlando.

Bank One's retail group is building a financial services site with the Web portal Excite that is expected to be unveiled this spring. Its credit card group offers services through America Online.

The Chicago company has a "leg up" in marketing credit cards on the Net, conceded Joseph W. Saunders, head of the credit card unit at Boston-based Fleet Financial Group.

Speaking at the conference the day before Mr. Stevens, Mr. Saunders said Bank One and its First USA credit card unit had jumped ahead of the pack with Internet contracts, including a $500 million deal to market cards on America Online.

But of Bank One's early lead, he said, "I don't think it will last. It's a gap we're all trying to close."

Fleet is the 10th-largest credit card issuer, with $14.3 billion of receivables and eight million customers.

Bank One is No. 1, at $70 billion of receivables.

"We're clearly not where they are," Mr. Saunders said of Bank One. "They're a step in front of the crowd, but the battle is far from over."

Mr. Saunders predicted that Fleet, First USA, Citigroup, and Wells Fargo & Co. would duke it out for positioning on the World Wide Web.

Mr. Saunders said successful card issuers use a number of channels to market themselves. "You can't be a one-trick pony. You can't depend on one method of distribution," he said. "What's absolutely certain is (the Web is) going to help us distribute product."

Fleet will focus on affinity and cobranded credit card deals, Mr. Saunders said.

Like other big issuers, it has been shying away from low teaser rates and incentives for balance transfers. He said the company will focus on better products.

Mr. Stevens said Bank One is likely to expand its somewhat unconventional practice of offering products from other financial institutions through its Web sites and branches. He declined to name what types of products it would add to the array of competitive mortgage and mutual fund products it currently offers.

Mixing it up with nationally known Internet sites and competing bank products is consistent with Bank One's "all-out journey to build a strong national brand," Mr. Stevens said.

"It's really about customer choice," he said, noting that customers outside the company's 14-state territory might prefer its cobranded Excite site to a stand-alone site.

Offering products from other financial institutions "just reinforces in customers' minds that we're acting in their best interest and that Bank One is concerned," he added.

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