First Union Corp. was scrambling last week to clarify a comment by chairman and chief executive officer Edward E. Crutchfield that his company may reduce its branch network by 75%.
"I don't want to contradict what he said, but I would believe he was being very futuristic," said Virginia Mackin, a spokeswoman.
In announcing that First Union's annual earnings would probably fall 14% below Wall Street estimates this year, Mr. Crutchfield told analysts last week that he could see a day when three of every four branches would be closed as customers migrate toward banking over the Internet and on the telephone.
Mr. Crutchfield said he was less inclined to acquire more banks, because he believes customers will want to use the Internet.
The comments prompted a report in the Charlotte Observer that "large- scale branch closings may be in the works" at First Union-a conclusion that Ms. Mackin said was "absolutely incorrect. We are aggressively correcting that misinformation," she said.
Ms. Mackin said First Union's plan to spend $300 million on Internet banking over the next two years will not immediately affect the company's 2,400 branches, which the company calls financial centers. "It does not replace financial centers-it complements them," she said. "In the future we may see fewer financial centers, because our customers migrate toward other channels."
Analysts say they do not expect any large-scale reduction of branches, because First Union has already closed branches because of its many bank acquisitions over the past several years.
"First Union isn't going to become an Internet bank immediately," said Michael Ancell, an analyst with Edward Jones in St. Louis. "They've done more brick-and-mortar acquisitions than anybody."
Mr. Ancell said he believed Mr. Crutchfield's comments about branches were largely hypothetical, envisioning banking as much as 20 years in the future. Other bank CEOs have made similar predictions about branch networks.