To compete in a field of superregional giants, Bank South Corp. hired a technology-savvy Yankee away from the country's biggest banking company to become its first chief information officer.
Bernard Baum, a 17-year Citicorp veteran, joined the Atlanta-based bank just over a month ago. Drawing from his background in retail banking services, Mr. Baum intends to expand the bank's development of alternative delivery channels as it takes on the likes of NationsBank Corp. and Wachovia Corp.
Bank South, which sees itself defending its home turf against invaders from afar, has been experimenting for a while with branches in supermarkets and enhanced touch-tone telephone services.
Within the past year, Bank South has stepped up the pace of innovation in remote delivery of banking services. Most notably, the bank inked a deal with BellSouth Telecommunications Inc. in June to offer banking services over screen phones.
But with the leadership and expertise of Mr. Baum, Bank South will be more ably equipped to "walk the walk and talk the talk" as well as any major player in retail banking, according to Patrick Flinn, chairman of the $7 billion-asset holding company.
"We wanted to get someone out of the box," Mr. Flinn said of the new chief information officer. "We wanted to get someone who has participated in these projects."
Mr. Baum, 46, who in addition to Citicorp spent six years at Chase Manhattan Corp., finds himself squarely at the helm of information technology for a smaller and more nimble organization.
The New York-born and educated executive said he is "tickled pink" to make the move, even though he is well aware that this highly focused, southern regional bank is "not a Citi that can let a thousand flowers bloom in different areas."
On the contrary, unlike many banks big and small, Bank South has chosen to take a country road rather than a four-lane thoroughfare as its approach to the information highway. Rather than embracing multiple delivery media - personal computers, interactive television, and screen phones - and setting up a wide range of potentially competing projects, Bank South appears fixed in its commitment to phone-based services for the time being.
"The New York City environment is very different from Metro Atlanta," Mr. Baum said. "But the type of delivery we're looking for is the perfect lead-in to the same types of services other banks are looking for."
Bank South says it has relationships with 32% of households in the Atlanta area, where 85% of its customer base is concentrated. Within it is a strong and growing base of personal-computer owners. But whereas Mr. Baum's former employer, Citicorp, is committed to both PC- and telephone- based banking, Bank South has seized on the telephone as its primary means to the home banking end, citing its current mass-market acceptance.
Bank South touts itself as the first bank in the Atlanta market to make a screen phone offering to its customers, Mr. Baum said.
Under its marketing arrangement with BellSouth, Bank South customers using screen phones will soon be able to get account information, pay bills, and transfer funds between accounts. Bank executives predicted last summer that this service would be available by late 1994, but the screen phone has yet to hit the market.
The device is still being tested by a small group of bank employees and is currently slated for a rollout in the second quarter this year. The phone itself will be sold to bank customers for less than $200, a bank spokesman said.
Bank South very much prides itself on its in-store branch network, which it will continue to extend, Mr. Baum said. As of yearend, 50 of the bank's 145 branches were in stores. Bank South also operates Georgia's largest automated teller machine network, with nearly 300 units, many in supermarkets.
Still, Mr. Baum vowed that the bank does eventually intend to pursue other outlets, including personal computers, interactive television, and video banking at ATMs.
Aside from that initiative, Mr. Baum is also aiding the bank in its in- house restructuring. Bank South is in the process of renegotiating its major outsourcing agreements. The bank's back room operations are handled by ISSC, a unit of International Business Machines Corp. Mr. Baum would not elaborate on this process, except to say that the company may well be doing more outsourcing due to its recent growth by acquisition and its rise in transaction volume.
Bank South has made five acquisitions in the Atlanta market since December 1993, Mr. Baum pointed out.
Mr. Baum said he will be improving the quality of systems software and hardware, particularly in the back office, in an effort to create a more centralized infrastructure. Bank South will also be rolling out a new teller platform, dubbed South Net, to all of its branches this summer.
During his tenure with Citi, Mr. Baum worked both the corporate and the retail sides of the fence.
Most recently he headed the global technology resources area. During the late 1980s, he helped automate the global private banking sector, broaden plans for alternative delivery, and develop new products.
At one time, he also ran technology for the global finance area and participated in some developmental work during the early days of electronic banking. When starting at Citi in 1978, he spent three years on a big consumer banking system overhaul that was "one of (current Citicorp chairman) John Reed's babies."
Mr. Baum said he had his best three years at Citi overseas, as a division head handling corporate electronic banking in Japan.
During his preceding stint at Chase, Mr. Baum got his start in the credit card unit before overseeing point of sale and automated teller services, as well as teller and platform systems.