bankers. Planning a big merger and need some advice on which branches to close? Why not give Fidelity Investments a ring?

Fidelity?

That's right. The undisputed titan of the mutual fund industry has begun pitching an array of consulting services to banks. They range from helping banks design variable annuities to picking the appropriate offices to shutter.

Right now, the shutdown side of the business is pretty hot, what with the merger and acquisition wave that has swept banking.

"Numerous banks have come to us, and asked 'Can you do a demographic overlay on all our branches and tell us which ones are suitable to close?'" said Andrew Olear, a vice president who oversees Fidelity's relationships with bank broker-dealers.

In fact, he said, 90 of the top 100 banks - many of which sell Fidelity's mutual funds - have asked the firm to customize demographic research for them over the last two years. That's what made Fidelity think maybe it had a new business on its hands.

Fidelity - whose $373 billion-asset fund business is about the same size as the entire banking industry's - won't reveal how much it charges for the service. But it has snared some pretty impressive clients.

Take Chemical Banking Corp., which recently turned to Fidelity for advice on its coming merger with Chase Manhattan Corp., one of the largest deals in banking history.

Fidelity provided maps pinpointing which branches have customers most likely to buy investments from a bank, and which markets have the wealthiest investors, a Chemical spokeswoman confirmed.

However, she maintained, Fidelity didn't exactly have to knock itself out to come up with the data. Much of the information it provides to banks comes from public sources, such as the U.S. Census Bureau.

But the fact is that Fidelity has the data, and the knowhow to interpret it. That's something the banks just can't match. "The resources Fidelity has at hand, and its ability to analyze this sort of information is second to none in the industry," said Andrew Guillett, consultant at Cerulli Associates.

Fidelity began building up a massive data base on investor buying trends and demographics in 1989, when it created a staff of seven to amass research for its own fund marketing efforts.

"We buy every financial data base there is, and use every consultant in the business," Mr. Olear said.

The research group, formally known as the Strategic Marketing Division, even includes a staff member with a doctorate in geography - "our map man," as Mr. Olear puts it. "He can slice and dice the United States any way you want."

Mr. Olear said it should come as no surprise that Fidelity has plunged into consulting. After all, he said, Fidelity is more than just a mutual fund company.

"That's the misperception everybody has of Fidelity. We're 40 or 50 separate companies," Mr. Olear said. Fidelity owns a travel agency, a chain of community newspapers, and a real estate management company, among other things.

Still, don't expect every banker in America to start flocking to Fidelity. Some find the company's offer downright unthinkable.

"Choosing which branches to close is an extremely sensitive issue," said Nancy Graves, a senior vice president who oversees retail banking at Mark Twain Bancshares, St. Louis. "I'm not giving my customer information to a mutual fund company."

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