"March Madness" has a whole new meaning at Chase Manhattan Corp.

This is the month when 14 finalists culled from the organization's 4,700 tellers face off in an annual competition called Tellermania.

Ellen Bowman, a 12-year veteran of the teller line, bested her colleagues this year through four grueling exercises: a written test, a role-playing session, a rapid-fire question-and-answer period known as the "lightning round," and the climactic money-counting race.

On March 6, before a raucous crowd of about 1,500 at a Manhattan hotel, Ms. Bowman staked her claim to being the biggest U.S. bank's speediest teller. She sorted and counted $2,683 in small bills, with no mistakes, in 3 minutes and 52 seconds.

Never mind that machines do most of the money sorting and counting these days or that customers interact more with automated tellers and telephone call centers than with branch employees. The Chase executives who organized the contest said it helps train and motivate the rank and file.

The contest was created to give tellers career encouragement, said Patricia Carmichael, senior vice president in Chase's branch management executive administration group, who runs the contest.

The first Tellermania champion was crowned in 1991. That was five years before Chase's merger with Chemical Banking Corp. Since then, Tellermania has taken on added significance, Ms. Carmichael said. "The tellers are the face of Chase. It's important to let them know how much we value them."

Consultants said the contest is a novel twist on traditional sales incentive programs.

"It's clearly geared toward sales management," said Gerard Hergenroeder, a retail banking consultant at Speer & Associates. "Here the tellers are being rewarded for their knowledge in a fun way."

Indeed, Tellermania is a stealth form of intensive training. All tellers-they are "strongly encouraged" but not required to participate- receive a study manual a few weeks before the madness begins. This year, 3,000 chose to compete.

Contestants are quizzed on questions ranging from whose face is on the $100 bill to Chase's corporate philosophy to how to spot and make an appropriate sales referral.

During the lightning round, contestants must answer 10 questions in 60 seconds. The topics: Chase's brand attributes and the meaning of its corporate slogan, "vision and values."

In the role-playing game, contestants are judged by their ability to assess a customer's needs and come up with solutions.

"The real benefit is that they improve their product knowledge and customer service skills," Ms. Carmichael said.

Ms. Bowman has been with Chase since 1980, but she took a five-year hiatus starting in 1987 to care for her newborn daughter. Among the ways she plans to use her winnings-$5,000 in cash, 25 shares of Chase common stock, and a personal computer-are to take a vacation and fund her daughter's education.

As a Tellermania champion, Ms. Bowman will no longer compete. She will join a mentoring program for future contestants.

"The most important thing is to remain calm," advised Ms. Bowman, who works at Chase's Steinway Avenue branch in Astoria, Queens. "I was nervous, but it was worth it."

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