After testing the waters in Atlanta, First Union Corp. is preparing to launch a sweeping redesign of its retail operations, which would affect 2,500 branches up and down the East Coast.

Thousands of employees throughout the $144 billion-asset organization are being shuffled into new roles and undergoing training for what First Union calls its Future Bank project, which is estimated to cost $100 million in 1998.

Though First Union's program has many components, the plan boils down to reducing the operational tasks handled within a branch, while adding delivery options like enhanced ATMs and computer and telephone banking kiosks. The primary benefits are expected to be more sales time for branch employees, lower operating costs, and increased access for consumers, First Union officials said.

"We're gung ho on this," said First Union chairman Edward E. Crutchfield in a recent interview. "If we can pull it off, it could well mean the difference in seeing branching as a viable way to do business or not."

The company will begin the branching changes April 1, transforming 20 to 25 branches at a time in each market. Operations in Georgia and western North Carolina are first on the agenda; the rest of the Carolinas and the remainder of the branch network are to follow.

First Union rolled out the Future Bank concept last spring in the Atlanta market, with the redesign of 66 branches.

Not all aspects of the model have been warmly embraced by consumers. In- branch video links to service and sales employees at remote sites have yet to prove technologically and practically efficient forms of delivery. And check-cashing ATMs are so far more trouble than they are worth, according to company executives.

But overall, the changes central to the Future Bank model have been impressive enough to warrant full-scale implementation, said officials.

"We're pleased with the results so far," said David M. Carroll, president of First Union-Florida and one of a team of executives overseeing the Future Bank rollout. "We've learned customers will use new options if we make it easy and make it simple."

Analysts appear to approve of the project, pointing to a 22% increase in earnings this year in First Union's Georgia operations, fueled in part by Future Bank changes there.

"They're doing a great job on the retail front," said Darren R. Short, an analyst at Robinson-Humphrey Co.

Though they are reluctant to discuss specific results related to the changes, First Union executives did hint at what they consider significant improvements:

Consumer credit sales for the Atlanta operations totaled $63 million in October, five months into the conversion, said Mr. Carroll. That is a 23% increase from the 1996 monthly average of $51 million. Investment sales totaled $875,000 in October, up 48% from the 1996 monthly average of $591,000.

In October, 33% of the transactions at First Union's Atlanta branches were handled by ATMs, including 13% of deposits. In 1996 an average of 28% of transactions and 8% of deposits were handled by ATMs.

In addition, the company shifted about 115,800 calls from its Atlanta- area branch system to its First Union Direct call center.

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