First Union Corp., bolstering an effort to acquire more small-business customers, has become the largest bank member of an online network that links lenders and businesses to facilitate big-ticket purchases.

The Charlotte, N.C., company announced its participation in the five-month-old Global Financing Network on Wednesday, just days after saying it would install specialized centers for small businesses in 297 branches.

The alliance is "an extension of our desire to provide products and services to small business via the Internet," said John Munger, vice president in the wholesale strategies group at $254 billion-asset First Union.

The global network, established by Dedham, Mass.-based eCredit.com Inc., provides lenders with a source of small business loans as well as the ability to make credit decisions in as little as 30 seconds, down from the 24 to 48 hours normally required, said Peter McKay, president of eCredit.com. The network plans to eventually add shippers and logistics companies as well.

One hundred thirty businesses, including Gateway, Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft, and Procter & Gamble, are members of the network. Financing partners include $188 billion-asset FleetBoston Financial Corp., $96 billion-asset Sun Trust Banks Inc., $4 billion-asset Copelco Capital, a Mahwah, N.J.-based leasing company, and VenServ Inc., a venture capital financing and leasing firm.

"This is a great deal for First Union because it opens them up to new customers," said Steven Kafka, an analyst at Forrester Research in Cambridge, Mass. It's also important for eCredit "because to stave off competition, they need to offer their customers a choice of financing options."

A number of companies have introduced similar sites for facilitating financing. American Management Systems has FleetBoston, Citigroup, and LoanFirst signed on as participants in its NetCredit service. LiveCapital.com, which lets businesses secure financing - including loans, lines of credit, equipment leases, and credit cards - for up to $20 million, has attracted a number of participating institutions since its launch in June. Wells Fargo, National City, M&T Bank, U.S. Bancorp, Bank of Hawaii, American Express, PNC, Compass Bank, Zions Bank, and Union Planters are some of its members.

At eCredit, customers fill out a credit application once they choose a product they want to buy. The network then profiles and pairs the buyer with an appropriate financial institution, giving the institution a time frame in which to respond to the loan application. Decisions can reach the buyer within 20 to 30 seconds of filing an application.

About 60% to 70% of the transactions on the network are instantaneously approved or denied by running the application through a scorecard and an algorithm created by the financial institution. Borderline applications or ones for bigger-ticket items are finished offline with human help, Mr. McKay said.

First Union has decided to limit the credit applications it receives through the network to only those from companies located in regions covered by its branch network. "But we are looking to expand," Mr. Munger said.

On Wednesday, eCredit announced that it has teamed up with San Francisco-based BankServ, a provider of payment processing services to merchants and banks, to create a "one-stop suite" of online payment and financing services that would be used by business-to-business exchanges and merchants selling to consumers via the Internet.

BankServ, which applied for a bank charter in December, will be able to give eCredit access to all financial products, such as checking, purchasing cards, wire transfers, and ultimately automated clearinghouse payments. The BankServ alliance "will enable us to provide a full-service solution for our Fortune 2000 merchants," Mr. McKay said.

The teaming of BankServ and eCredit is attractive for small and medium-size businesses, "who are going to be significant participants in the e-marketplaces," said Mr. Kafka of Forrester.

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