Renewing its commitment to the retail lockbox business, First Union Corp. has added two operations centers in the Southeast.

The Charlotte, N.C.-based bank processes 4.5 million items a month, placing it among the nation's top lockbox players.

Company executives said the bank intends to more than double its volume over the next five years, explaining the need for the new processing sites.

"We are making a very deliberate move here by adding retail lockbox sites in Charlotte and Atlanta," said Laurie B. Yeager, vice president with First Union. "We feel the technology that is available to us will allow for streamlined processing."

First Union joins several other banks, including Mellon Bancorp, CoreStates Financial Corp., and National City Corp., in making a statement about remaining in the increasingly competitive business.

Like many lines of business, retail lockbox has undergone a consolidation in recent years, as smaller players have been sold off to larger competitors with better economies of scale.

Financial institutions need to process a million or more items a month in order to break even in lockbox, experts said.

"Within the last few years, there has been a big consolidation in the remittance-processing industry, particularly retail lockbox," said David Medeiros, an analyst with the Tower Group, Wellesley, Mass. "A number of banks have left the industry," he said.

Lockbox processing centers are often located close to post offices to speed the collection of checks that a processor handles for its cash- management customers. Such is the case with the new First Union sites.

First Union's automated lockbox processing system uses an AT&T imaging system, which endorses each item and generates standard or customized reports for its corporate customers.

First Union's cash-management customers get daily transmission files of payment information such as dollar values, number of items, and the accompanying remittance data.

The largest lockbox player is Pittsburgh-based Mellon, which processes upwards of 30 million items a month. Philadelphia-based CoreStates, which recently purchased Nationwide Remittance Centers Inc. and Cashflex, handles 25 million items a month, and National City Corp., Cleveland, processes 22 million items a month.

As part of its growth effort, the $77 billion-asset First Union will target utility companies, cable television operators, and insurance companies. These companies are among the best candidates for lockbox services because they typically process large volumes of consumer payments.

Companies can hire a bank to perform these remittance-processing functions: intercepting the mail, processing the payments, and depositing the checks in the company's account, Ms. Yeager said.

In addition to the new processing centers, First Union operates five facilities in Florida, Tennessee, and Virginia.

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