Centura Banks Inc. markets itself as "the Money Manager," a purveyor of soup-to-nuts financial services - which is rather brash, considering that the $5.5 billion-asset bank is only a fraction of the size of its major competitors.

Beating the big players at their own game, spunky Centura offers a full- service brokerage operation, including its own line of mutual funds; trust and insurance products; a telephone call center; a state-of-the-art branch automation system; and - most daringly - PC-based home banking.

Centura is currently the only bank in North Carolina with a home banking service, although NationsBank Corp., First Union Corp., Wachovia Corp., and Southern National Corp. all plan to unveil similar products later this year.

At an investment conference in Atlanta this week, company officials also said they were on the verge of signing a major supermarket branching agreement that would help them in major urban markets in North Carolina.

Not bad for a midsize bank headquartered in sleepy Rocky Mount (pop. 48,000), with most of its 154 branches still concentrated in the more rural, slower-growing eastern part of the state.

But Centura's achievement did not come cheap. The $14 million the company spent on new sales systems and other technology last year constituted nearly one-fourth of that year's $58 million of net income. Centura estimates that its efficiency or overhead ratio, currently 62%, would be 57% without all the investment spending.

"We could have run the company differently," said president and chief operating officer Cecil W. Sewell Jr. "We could have squeezed the last nickel out of it. But we believe the best way to run a company is as if it's going to be in existence forever."

The question now for Centura is whether all these investments, unusual for a midsize bank, will translate into superior earnings

Last year's returns - 1.22% on assets and 15.44% on equity - were solid but hardly exciting. Profitability growth has essentially been in a holding pattern since 1993.

Centura executives say they are beginning to break out of that stall. In the first quarter, fee income surged 39% from the year-ago period, driven in part by strong brokerage commissions.

"Fee income is increasing," said David Stumpf, an analyst with Wheat First Butcher Singer. "Is it enough to justify what they're spending? We can't tell yet. That's a real long-term question."

Mr. Stumpf pointed out that the mystique Centura enjoys among investors as a leading edge bank derives as much from perception - and clever marketing - as reality.

"The company has, on purpose, given their changes a lot of lip service," Mr. Stumpf said. "They're farther along than some other companies. But it may not be as dramatic a difference from what some of their competitors are doing as you may assume from how much they talk about it."

Centura's telephone call center, marketed as "Centura Highway," is a case in point. The technological capabilities of Centura Highway are roughly in line with those of Wachovia On-Call and First Union Direct, except that it features live operators only 12 hours a day, five days a week. Wachovia On-Call, in Columbia, S.C., is staffed around the clock, seven days a week.

But Centura does have much to be proud of. Its on-line banking and bill- paying service, offered through Intuit's Quicken and Microsoft's Managing Your Money, is the only one in the state. Its new EDS-designed branch automation system, called SellStation, matches anything offered by the larger banks.

Even more leading edge is Centura's new customer information file, which it developed with assistance from the First Manhattan Consulting Group. Branch officers can now call up profitability data on all their customers and select out the most lucrative relationships for special handling.

"Our biggest challenge is not to increase our deposit market share, but to increase the percentage of our existing customers that are profitable," Mr. Sewell said. "You'll see much better numbers come out of an effort to do that than to increase our wholesale market share around the state."

This is "one of the few banks out there that really understands or has a chance to understand soon where it makes money," said an approving John Coffey, analyst with Robinson-Humphrey Co.

Such an aggressive approach to technology didn't develop overnight. Centura, a small-business and consumer-oriented bank, has been undergoing a massive cultural change ever since 1990, when the company was formed from a merger of equals between two Rocky Mount-based banks.

Chairman and chief executive Robert R. Mauldin, working closely with Mr. Sewell, his second-in-command and designated successor, seized the opportunity of the merger to introduce new ideas. Said Mr. Mauldin: "It made it easier for us to change in that we had a new bank, essentially new management in most positions."

By late 1992, after working out most of the operational kinks produced by the merger process, Mr. Mauldin and Mr. Sewell began focusing more on long-term questions. What kind of bank should Centura be? How could it set itself apart from the competition?

They decided Centura must become "the primary provider" of financial services for its customers, as opposed to remaining a traditional loan-and- deposit operation. That meant broadening the product line, but also flattening the organizational chart to make the company more responsive and flexible.

The key initiative was to divide the staff of each branch into sales and service personnel. The sales people, formerly loan officers, are totally dedicated to that function, while the service staff works the teller line and handles administrative chores.

With the foundation for a more competitive company now established, Mr. Mauldin is preparing to leave the scene. In March, Centura announced that the 61-year-old chairman and chief executive would retire next Feb. 1, to be succeeded by Mr. Sewell, who is 49.

Mr. Mauldin could have stayed another three years. But he says retiring at age 62 had long been his goal. For 26 years, he has held the No. 1 or No. 2 position at Centura and one of its predecessor banks. "That's long enough," he said.

Retirement will allow Mr. Mauldin to pursue a cherished ambition: riding the back roads of America on a Harley-Davidson motorcycle his wife bought him for his 60th birthday. "As soon as the weather warms up next year, I'm off and gone," he said, evincing the gusto of a teenager.

Centura is not likely to change much in Mr. Mauldin's absence. Mr. Sewell has been serving as a strong No. 2 executive since Oct. 1993 and is credited with pushing many of the company's recent initiatives.

Where Mr. Mauldin is low-key and casual, Mr. Sewell comes across as more intense, speaking in clipped, rapid-fire cadences and often jumping in to complete an interviewer's sentences. He said his job is to execute the strategy already in place at Centura. "The early numbers are good," he said, "but we must stay on top of it - stay tough-minded, and really execute."

Even as Mr. Mauldin and Mr. Sewell tout Centura's technological accomplishments, both men keep an eye out for possible strategic combinations and alliances, possibly with one of the other midsize North Carolina banks. Mr. Mauldin stressed the need for Centura to expand more into the Interstate 85 corridor, which cuts through the booming Piedmont region of the Carolinas.

Centura has been an active acquirer of community banks in recent years, and its last purchase (Gastonia-based First Community Bank, in March) occurred in the Piedmont. But it still needs a larger partner to become a major player in that region.

Mr. Sewell said that no deals are pending, but that Centura keeps its options open.

"We have a joke around here that we'll talk to anyone about anything," he said. "You just have to know when to quit talking if you don't want to do it."

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