Citibank Faces Big Job of Refitting ATMs for Disabled

Citibank, the owner of one of the nation's biggest ATM networks, faces a major remodeling job to comply with the new federal law mandating access for the disabled.

To differentiate itself from rival banks in New York, the Citicorp unit has long relied on a go-it-alone retail strategy that employs a huge flock of custom-designed automated teller machines.

The machines - manufactured exclusively for Citibank by its subsidiary, Transaction Technology Inc., Santa Monica, Calif. - feature touch-sensitive screens and card readers that do not ingest a customer's ATM card. Such functions are rarely found on other banks' ATMs.

Aggressive ATM Strategy

Citibank officials maintain that their aggressive ATM strategy is largely responsible for the bank's industry-leading customer loyalty and its monolithic market share in New York.

But with the approaching deadline for compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, industry experts said the bank will soon be paying a high price for its desire to be unique.

"The fact that machines are different has been an attractive selling point in the past, but it's definitely going to cost them a little extra to bring them in line with the new laws," said Richard Yannack, president of the Yankee24 ATM network in Wallinford, Conn.

Deadline:Jan.26

By Jan. 26, 1991, the Americans with Disabilities Act requires that banks and other businesses make large portions of their facilities accessible to people with disabilities, where such renovations are "readily achievable" and when doing so does not place an "undue burden" on the institution.

According to a forthcoming American Banker survey of ATM ownership, Citibank now owns and operates 1,857 ATMs.

Although Citibank declined to be interviewed for this article. industry observers have estimated that less than 20% of the bank's ATMs are accessible to people in wheelchairs, and even fewer accommodations have been made for people with visual and hearing impairments.

Easier Access at BankAmerica

By contrast, BankAmerica Corp., San Francisco - the only U.S. financial institution with more ATMs than Citibank - will make 60% of its ATM fleet accessible to people in wheelchairs by yearend.

The requirements of the act have worried many bankers - federal fines for noncompliance start at $50,000, and special interest groups have promised lawsuits against negligent institutions.

The new law promises to be one of the hottest topics of discussion at the Bank Administration Institute's 14th annual Retail Delivery System Conference in Orlando, Dec. 8-11.

The very characteristics that make Citibank's cash machines so appealing to most users also present obstacles to disabled people.

For example, Citi's touch-sensitive screens are much more difficult for blind people to use than the buttons on industry-standard ATMs.

Although industry observers agree that Citibank's renovation project promises to be among the most expensive in the industry, the bank has some things working in its favor.

One Special ATM per Site

First, the ADA initially requires that only one machine per site be accessible to disabled people. Since Citibank's ATMs tend to be clustered in groups of five or more, that cuts down on the number of renovations the bank must accomplish by Jan. 26.

Second, some observers said that the bank's $885 million loss in the third quarter might temporarily exonerate it from making large-scale changes. The ADA states that alterations will not be required when they place an "undue burden" on the bank.

"Their recent performance might buy them some extra time, but I think that a postponement is the best they can hope for," said Noel Nation, a partner at the law firm of Baker & McKenzie in Miami. "It's not going to just go away."

Table : ATM Leaders Top five banks in automated teller machines as of June 30

BankAmerica, San Francisco

1 2,250

Citicorp, New York

2 1,857

Security Pacific, Los Angeles

3 1,762

Wells Fargo, San Francisco

4 1,600

First Interstate, Los Angeles

5 1,331

Source: American Banker

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