Florida represents fun to the vacationers and retirees who flock there.
Barnett Banks Inc., the biggest banking company in the state, wants to carry that quality over into cyberspace.
Barnett, in common with other major retail banks, is well on its way toward a comprehensive strategy for new and emerging types of electronic banking. But there's something about the way Barnett people talk about it that seems only fitting for a company exposed to the spirit of Walt Disney World, Sea World, and so many other resort attractions.
Barnett wants to appeal to its customers in ways that are "not only convenient, but entertaining," said Paul Lambert, director of interive services at the Jacksonville-based company.
"We are trying to make this fun for consumers," added Jonathan J. Palmer, chief technology officer and retail banking executive at $41 billion-asset Barnett.
"This isn't just processing transactions like we've always done," said Catherine V. Corby, director of electronic delivery strategy. "It's all about selling."
She added: "We want people to come visit our 'store.' It has to be engaging, interactive, informative - and fun."
In an open-minded, experimental mode, Barnett is not content with any single medium for on-line services, be it telephones, personal computer networks, or the vast, global Internet. It's exploring them all.
The bank has been closely identified with what many observers view as the most radical alternative - interactive television - through an alliance with Time-Warner Cable. It has been one of the most closely watched ventures in home-based services even as it falls farther and farther behind its intended start date.
What may be most striking about Barnett, aside from its willingness to go out on a risky limb with Time-Warner, is its readiness to embrace an entirely new paradigm for banking.
Mr. Palmer, a former Shearson Lehman Brothers executive, wants Barnett to lead the changeover from the "stodgy, old-fashioned image" of banking to that of "retailing of financial services."
The bank seems to be striving in various respects to emulate other financial providers' best practices. Mr. Palmer gave as an example the newly created Omnibus account, which closely resembles a brokerage account.
"It's a retailing business we're in, particularly when you look at the new competition," Mr. Palmer said.
"We are trying to think more as a consumer appliance provider than a bank," Mr. Lambert said. "Companies like Sony and General Electric actually have to understand what a consumer is going to be doing with a product five years from now, in order to develop that product today."
"I love the fact that Barnett is trying these things rather than studying them to death," said Thomas K. Brown, a senior analyst with Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette.
Mr. Brown views Barnett's efforts as part of a consumer-driven trend that extends far beyond banking. He places Barnett in the second tier of banks setting the pace in alternative delivery systems, just behind industry leaders like First Bank System, Wells Fargo & Co., Signet Banking Corp., and Citicorp.
Mr. Lambert and his group, which is headed by Ms. Corby, have been consulting with software and interactive game makers, in hopes of applying unconventional though proven technologies and packaging techniques.
At a recent Consumer Bankers Association conference, Ms. Corby said Barnett "brought in people who design video games because our offering has to be compelling. It is competing with watching a movie or playing a game. This means we need some radical approaches."
Especially so in the sense that Barnett, being Florida-based, has a well-entrenched, older customer base. While many peer banks handle 50% or more of retail transactions electronically and by phone, Barnett's 618 branches handle 70%.
In a presentation at Alex Sheshunoff & Co.'s Electronic Money and Banking forum in Dallas this September, Ms. Corby underscored the bank's desire to learn new lessons in customer excitement.
"We talk about people playing Myst, surfing the 'Net, using Quicken," she said. "The game is much bigger than banking. We're kind of the tail on the dog here."
"We've been trying to understand the world of entertainment before that industry comes in and understands banking enough to provide entertaining solutions," Mr. Lambert said.
According to a former Barnett executive who asked to remain anonymous, this could be the bank's way of attracting younger consumers in Florida. (See chart.)
"Barnett does not have too many opportunities to expand geographically," he said, as heavyweights like NationsBank Corp., First Union Corp., and Wachovia Corp. bear down from the north. Barnett made a brief attempt to push into Georgia and retreated in the early 1990s.
Could on-line "fun" be the key to its future?
"It's pretty hard to make bill-paying and debts fun," said Anne Moore, president of Atlanta-based Synergistics Research Corp.
"If it truly is fun, there will be a segment of the population that will do it," Mr. Brown predicted.
"Fun is good, and some consumers will want fun," Dudley Nigg, a Wells Fargo executive vice president said to Ms. Corby in a Consumer Bankers Association panel discussion. But he believes consumers are more interested in "functionality" - something the banking industry historically has been lax at providing.
Mr. Lambert said there is nothing frivolous about Barnett's approach. "Your checking account balance is never going to be funny," he said. "At the point that it's funny then there's a problem there. That's not where the entertainment value will be."
For now, little can be said about Barnett's alternative delivery strategies because little has been accomplished.
The bank plans to build out from its association with Prodigy Services Co.
Less than 4,000 Barnett customers use that on-line PC network to do home banking, Mr. Palmer says. But the bank has not given up on it. It will update its Prodigy interface and improve on-line navigation through popular personal finance software like Intuit Inc.'s Quicken and Microsoft Money, maintaining a consistent look and feel over several access devices, Mr. Lambert said.
"Everybody was laughing five years ago about the possibility of consumers' trying to figure out a 500-channel cable service," Mr. Lambert said. "Well, we have millions of consumers out there figuring out a 40,000- channel Internet."
The work with Time-Warner may soon bear fruit. After close to a year of what Mr. Lambert called mostly technical delays, a 4,000-household interactive TV trial in Maitland, Fla., seems poised to take off. Mr. Lambert said close to half the homes are connected and the rest will be hooked up by yearend.
The delays proved beneficial, Mr. Lambert said, giving Barnett time to survey customers, fine-tune its offerings, and "develop 18 different flavors along the way."
Interactive services expert Gary Arlen, president of Arlen Communications Inc. in Bethesda, Md., is skeptical. "It's a real tough sell to use the TV for banking when your kid's going to walk in the room and see your bank account," he said.
But Barnett sees in interactive TV a way to change the paradigm and prevent others from horning in on its turf.
"Let's make sure we understand how people are interacting with these technologies and that we're not just redeploying the traditional banking product or service over a new channel," Mr. Lambert said. "If we continue to do that, there will be more Intuits of the world that will understand the consumer better and produce what we didn't know we had."