As it jockeys for position in home banking, First Union Corp. is going further than many rivals in hedging its bets through multiple strategies and alliances.
First Union seems to be putting a marker on just about everything.
The Charlotte, N.C., company is one of at least 18 banking institutions that are expected to join Inet, a consortium in which International Business Machines Corp. is playing a key role.
First Union also is nearing a contract for a multichannel home banking platform from Visa Interactive, the bank card association's on-line banking arm.
And in October the company plans to begin offering a service based on Meca Software Inc.'s personal finance product, which is owned by a group of five banks that include First Union archrival NationsBank Corp. First Union's version of the Managing Your Money software will sport the bank's green and white colors, not those of NationsBank.
"Our approach is based on the reality that there are a great number of customers that may elect to use any number of products," said First Union senior vice president Edgar D. Brown.
Other banks in the forefront of interactive banking are also going down multiple roads. But even as they simultaneously test more than one channel - personal computers and screen phones, for example - they generally choose a single approach, or alliance partner, for a given method of delivery.
Chase Manhattan Corp. is typical of many in offering home banking through the two most popular personal finance programs, Intuit Inc.'s Quicken and Microsoft Corp.'s Money.
NationsBank, preferring to work with what it considers "bank-friendly" providers, has tilted in favor of its Meca affiliate and Inet, whose formation is expected to be announced next month.
Does First Union have any qualms about working with a company like Meca that is controlled by others? (Meca's other owners are BankAmerica Corp., Fleet Financial Group, First Bank System, and Royal Bank of Canada.)
"I don't have a problem," said Mr. Brown, who is responsible for all remote banking activities at First Union. "I have much more of a problem working with companies that don't necessarily have a stake in our industry."
Nevertheless, he works with them, too. The bank was among the first offering access to bank accounts via Quicken or Money.
Mr. Brown conceded it may be more difficult for First Union to support both Visa Interactive and Inet because the two systems may employ different interfaces for enabling electronic payments.
The Visa and Inet groups are also beginning an increasingly intense battle for processing business, contesting longer-established Intuit Services Corp. and Checkfree Corp.
Thanks to Intuit's 80% share of the personal financial software market and its early participation in Microsoft's home banking program, Intuit Services Corp. is processing payments for about 300,000 customers of client banks. Checkfree reaches 500,000.
Industry observers said they see Inet and Visa Interactive spurring home banking growth to millions of customers.
Given the uncertainty of outcomes, First Union's joining every game in town "is a brilliant approach," said Gary Arlen, president of Arlen Communications in Bethesda, Md. "They get an inside view about how their customers respond to different approaches to home banking, and they find out how the various platform providers work."
The consultant added, "Everyone seems to want to find out what works before they are willing to make the gamble on home banking, even though it isn't very expensive and the payoff is there" in number of customers.
"This is further evidence that First Union management is innovative from a technological standpoint," said Sandra Flannigan, a Merrill Lynch & Co. analyst in New York.
First Union has been relatively quiet about its "test-all" gambit, but it has made no secret of its aspirations. An aggressive Internet proponent, it registered "cyberbank" as a service mark and is developing its Web site to permit checking of account balances, paying bills, and electronic shopping.
Employees have been testing those services since May. Customer access to accounts will begin next month, and bill payments are to be added by yearend.
It doesn't stop there. First Union has signed an agreement with Home Financial Network Inc., which is promoting simplified, bank-branded software that it hopes will appeal to the majority of consumers who do not want to learn more complex financial management tools like Quicken.
"Stay tuned for some very interesting developments" in the first quarter of next year, First Union's Mr. Brown said.