Moving closer to its goal of creating a more unified branch network, First Union Corp. recently completed what officials said was the largest systems conversion in U.S. banking history.

The nation's ninth-largest banking company moved more than two million customer accounts at its First Union National Bank of Florida subsidiary to a new deposit accounting system during a single weekend in May.

First Union plans to have all of its approximately eight million deposit accounts converted to the deposit system by the end of the year.

"It's a significant challenge when thousands of people are involved in a project that takes place over a single weekend," said Austin A. Adams, a First Union executive vice president and head of its operations and automation division, in a telephone interview.

More than 2,000 employees were involved in the Florida conversion.

At the core of the deposit system, known as Emerald, is proprietary software that took more than four years and $25 million to develop.

Rather than purchase a commercially available software package, First Union developed its own software because "we simply didn't see any package within the marketplace with the size, flexibility, and features we were looking for," said Mr. Adams.

Seeking Better Performance

The largest software development project in the industry is believed to be the Strategic Banking System, a joint project of Banc One Corp., Columbus, Ohio, Norwest Corp. Minneapolis, and Electronic Data Systems Corp., Plano, Tex., a unit of General Motors.

That project, yet to be completed, includes deposit, lending, and demographic information systems, and has been more than six years and $100 million in the making.

Mr. Adams said the Emerald software, based on International Business Machines Corp. DB2 relational data base software, will help standardize First Union's checking and savings product, and deliver improved system performance.

Unrealized Advantage

If interstate banking laws are further relaxed, said Mr. Adams, First Union customers will be able to conduct transactions at any of the bank's branches.

Mr. Adams called that capability a competitive advantage, but "the laws don't allow us to do anything meaningful with that yet," he said.

Branch personnel can also make changes to customer accounts on-screen while the customer is present, rather then writing down the changes and forwarding them for processing, he said.

"This conversion offers substantive improvement of the capabilities within our branch network," said Mr. Adams.

He added that Emerald reduces the cycle time for developing and introducing new products, offers increased flexibility for product pricing, and includes components for tracking employee sales and incentives.

There are other issues besides common products. "Everybody who assembles banks gets multiple systems," said George P. DiNardo, a consultant with Coopers & Lybrand, New York. "The move to a single system can beget huge savings."

First Union began developing the new deposit system in 1988, in an effort to develop a standard set of products for a branch network pieced together through more than 30 acquisitions.

"It's a good, logical, economical, smart move to develop a common deposit system. It doesn't mean there was any technological wizardry involved," said Mr. DiNardo.

First Union has grown rapidly since the onset of interstate banking. It currently has nearly $72 billion of assets and 1,300 branches in seven states and the District of Columbia.

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