BANGKOK, Thailand - Yuthchai Chusakpakdee will either be remembered as the man who took the wait out of branch banking or the one who eliminated one this city's great social gathering spots.

The manager of strategy and innovation at Thai Farmers Bank, Mr. Yuthchai is the executive behind his bank's bold move to implement American-style reengineering to improve branch service.

The innovation has changed not only the physical appearance of the branch, but has eliminated the long waits that customers filled with conversation and television viewing.

In a typical downtown Bangkok branch, scores of customers pile into lines for simple transactions like updating passbook accounts or obtaining a check, which can require 45 minutes at peak times.

To appease customers, banks have traditionally soothed them with icy cold air-conditioning, couches to lounge on and color television with popular programming ranging from news to championship wrestling. The result are frequent traffic jams as customers stop to watch a favorite program.

The banks have never lacked people to handle customers. Literally hundreds of clerks sit behind rows of desks for as far as the eye can see to manually process transactions. Because clerks must know and use as many as 700 separate codes for basic transactions, desktop computers act as little more than a giant calculator.

Something as simple as depositing a check would require three separate entries into the mainframe and an estimated 1.5 man hours of labor. Multiply that by 6.5 million accounts and the potential wasted time becomes incredible.

Under Mr. Yuthchai, the process is changing radically - and turning the heads of worried competitors. Walk into one of the 70 or so modern branches of Thai Farmers Bank and the change is apparent. Gone are scores of clerks now reassigned and out of site.

The branches are nearly vacant as customers smoothly move through lines in an ultramodern branch. It is replaced with a new look, ranging from new carpet and chrome columns to a freshly polished safe door.

"When we converted our first branch, we had customers that would walk through the door and then leave because they thought they were in the wrong place," the banker recalled. "The customers are happy with the changes until they go into one of our branches which has not been converted."

But his work is far from over. Thai Farmers is expected to spend as much as $150 million on an overhaul of its systems and to revamp automation in its branches. So far, just over 70 of the bank's 454 branches nationwide have been converted. By the end of 1996, all should be completed.

Because the bank did not want to deal first with updating its IBM mainframe, the initial focus was on building a client-server system to allow Thai Farmers to reengineer its retail system until the existing mainframe could be replaced.

Eventually, the bank plans to update its SAFE II system (South American Financial Environment), but has not decided what mainframe to buy. The SAFE system is widely used throughout Asia, but has become the focal point of criticism from bankers.

"If you talk to 10 (bank) CEOs in Asia, they will say that whatever you do, get them out of IBM," said Hubert Knapp, an outside consultant advising the bank on integration. "They feel they are being held hostage by what the system won't do."

But the client-server has enabled Thai Farmers to bypass the troubles of old technology. Using Visual Banker, an object-oriented technology designed by Toronto-based Footprint, the bank has radically cut the amount of time for simple transactions like making deposits. Additionally, branches now feature self-service alternatives from an IBM machine that updates passbooks automatically in seconds to a multi-function ATM terminal.

"This wasn't driven by technology being available," said Mr. Knapp. "It was driven purely by business needs."

Eventually, executives believe the change will result in marketshare gains as other banks move toward similar projects.

"One of our competitors has changed the floorplan of their branches, but not the process, which is what reengineering is about," said Mr. Yuthchai. "Even around here, most people didn't know what reengineering was about. They thought it was about making the old process faster, but now they know differently."

Thai Farmers is already focusing on the next phase of its project. The company is creating a customer information database from which to build future business leads. Many of the branch workers who have been taken out of the back office are now going door-to-door.

The bank does not expect to see revenue growth from the development of customer information until after half the branches have been converted. Software from Wisconsin-based M&I is expected to help with the effort to target new sales opportunities.

"To some degree, we put the cart before the horse," said Wayne Ross, a U.S. consultant working with Thai Farmers Bank. "Over the next two years, there will be a new functionality added for the bank."

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