Citigroup's new head of North American branches is launching his strategy to wring more profits out of the bank's national network.

Joseph Plumeri 2d, the executive vice president who built his reputation as the charismatic leader of Primerica Financial Services, has been telling employees and analysts that he wants to reshape the branches into sales centers.

At rallies staged in the last two weeks in Chicago, Miami, California, and New York, Mr. Plumeri has been explaining his ideas to the thousands who work for the Citibank unit.

The three-hour events were held in sports arenas like Madison Square Garden in New York. Those who attended described them as high-energy- similar to the revival-style annual meetings Mr. Plumeri held for Primerica representatives.

Analysts said Mr. Plumeri, who was not available to comment for this story, plans to inject an entrepreneurial sales culture in Citibank branches. This would borrow the formula he helped perfect as head of Primerica, an Atlanta company, also part of Citigroup, that uses independent representatives to peddle financial planning services and products door-to-door.

About 3,000 Citibank branch employees will be put through the same sales training program that Primerica used. A new compensation structure calls for a greater portion of pay to come from commissions and fees tied to referrals.

Analysts said the plan could inject needed energy into the $701 billion- asset Citigroup's far-flung branch system. The branch system outside New York, which was cobbled together in the 1980s with the purchase of several struggling savings and loans, turned profitable only last year.

The new approach "will invigorate motivation levels of employees and significantly increase profitability," George Bicher, an analyst at BT Alex. Brown, wrote in a recent note to investors.

Some signs of a culture shift are evident in Citi's branches. Susan Weeks, a Citibank spokeswoman, said the title of teller has been dropped in favor of "financial associate." Branches are now "financial centers."

Analysts and consultants said Citibank had tried to adopt a greater sales orientation in the past but the national branch network's fractionalized systems worsened expenses.

"Citi tried to have superior service, but that led to a bloated cost structure," said Michael Mayo, an analyst at Credit Suisse First Boston. "Their challenge is to find ways to cut those costs."

Mr. Plumeri told analysts recently that he plans to achieve his goals this year while cutting branch expenses 5% to 10%-$85 million to $170 million-much of it from redundant support systems.

In December, Citigroup announced a broad plan to eliminate 10,400 jobs- mostly in groups that support the consumer businesses-and eliminate $975 million of costs by the end of 2000. That came two months after completion of the merger of Citicorp and Travelers Group.

Consultants said many institutions have been searching for ways to boost branch banking revenues.

"Banks want to move to electronic delivery, but they realize they're stuck with their branches" and their fixed costs, said Edward Furash, a consultant on retail banking and chairman of Monument Financial Group, an Alexandria, Va., merchant bank. "They might as well do everything they can to boost revenues."

First Union Corp. of Charlotte, N.C., has spent more than $100 million in the last couple of years to retrain branch employees and develop its electronically oriented Future Bank program. That effort is expected to show results this year, analysts said.

Norwest Corp. of Minneapolis, which merged with Wells Fargo & Co. and took its name in November, was a well known proponent of the sales-center strategy.

Citibank has 435 branches in North America, most of them in or near urban hubs like New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, and Washington.

Executives have admitted that the national distribution strategy never lived up to expectations.

Expansion could be in the cards. Analysts said Citibank management is considering the installation of automated teller machines in some of Primerica's 5,000 offices. Citibank has also been putting electronic kiosks in stores such as Blockbuster Video.

Mr. Bicher of BT Alex. Brown said success for the sales-center strategy could encourage Citibank to expand into new markets, either on its own or by acquisition.

Some cautioned that cultural change would not be easy. "They don't have a sales culture," said Steven Eisman, an analyst at CIBC Oppenheimer. "It's not going to happen overnight."

Still, analysts said that Mr. Plumeri-whom they credit for boosting Primerica's earnings from $203 million in 1994 to $335 million in 1997-may be perfect for the task. "If anyone can do it, he can," Mr. Eisman said.

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