Bank Services of Virginia has prospered by bucking the trend to electronic services and targeting what it calls "the average person" who values low fees and extended operating hours.
Tellers at Bank Services' 10 banks still use passbooks to record depositors' savings. The banks have no automated teller machines, no toll-free numbers, and no Web sites. And as long as Worth Harris Carter Jr. remains in charge of the $1.8 billion-asset company in Bassett, things will pretty much stay that way. Mr. Carter - who is chairman, president, and chief executive officer of the holding company, the third-largest in Virginia, and of all 10 banks - says computers are not consistent with the "eyeball-to-eyeball" philosophy of banking he espouses. Moreover, merging onto the information superhighway costs money, something Mr. Carter parts with only grudgingly.
By keeping things uncomplicated, Mr. Carter said, he is able to hold down costs and offer better rates and lower fees. All his banks offer lifetime free checking, for example.
"We provide basic banking for the average person," said Mr. Carter, speaking from Greensboro, N.C., where his Patrick Henry National Bank opened a branch March 17. "I do not see anything that is going to change that soon."
Mr. Carter does business with a disdain for technology, even as the dot-com wave roars through the rest of the banking world like a tsunami. Though he has hinted that he may be warming up to ATMs - a mere 32 years after they were introduced - his skepticism regarding more recent innovations, such as supermarket branching and, especially, the Internet, remains steadfast.
"Banks like ours are never going to be on the cutting edge of anything," Mr. Carter said.
It's hard to argue with his success. His company's assets have grown by an average of 13.3% annually during the last four years, and efficiency ratios at the more established banks are among the best in the business.
"He operates lean and mean," said Bill Reed, a consultant for the Virginia Banking Association. Manassas, 30 miles west of Washington, is as close as any of Mr. Carter's banks gets to a major metropolitan area. Most are in small Virginia cities with names like Floyd, Galax, South Boston, or Rocky Mount.
One of the company's most profitable banks is Fredericksburg-based Patriot Bank: Its 21% return on equity in 1999 put it well above the national average of 14% for banks its size. Four-year-old Patriot, with assets of $140 million, is to open five branches this spring and one more in the fall, said vice president Bill Oeters, bringing its total to 12.
Questions are raised, however, about the long-term viability of Mr. Carter's strategy.
Mr. Reed said, "I don't even think they use computers over there. I know of one guy who has a computer on his desk, but he brought it from home."
Most observers believe people will ultimately demand a combination of on-line convenience and the security of a brick-and-mortar branch office.
But Mr. Carter seems unconcerned about falling behind. A recent survey by the Chicago-based management consultant Grant Thornton found that 78% of community banks said they would have a Web site by yearend. Another 14% said they intend to establish one soon.
Cardinal Financial Corp. in Fairfax, Va., for example, introduced an interactive Web site at the same time it opened its branch in Manassas last July.
"Technology drives down costs and extends a bank's reach, so it does not have to have a branch on every corner," said Christopher Bergstrom, president of Cardinal Bank Manassas/Prince William. "Our customers can bank around the clock. A lot of people want the Internet. In this market, I think we are coming to a point where they are going to expect it."
But Mr. Carter and his lieutenants remain convinced there will always be a large group of customers attracted to solid, old-fashioned banks. Mr. Oeters, the Patriot Bank vice president, said he is comfortable serving these traditional depositors and views technology-savvy customers as free agents, who will move from Web site to Web site in search of the best deal.
"The way I see it, with the Internet, where is the loyalty?" Mr. Oeters said. "If customers are sold on the Internet and comfortable with the security aspect, why should they keep their money local?"