Fleet Financial Group is making it easier for its Galaxy mutual fund investors to tap the earnings on their bond investments.
The Providence, R.I., banking company last week gave 170,000 Galaxy fund investors the option of automatically placing bond dividends in deposit accounts, instead of receiving the payments through the mail.
This way, investors - especially the elderly - have immediate access to money that often pays their monthly bills, said Peter Herlihy, a vice president with Fleet Investment Services, the unit that runs the Galaxy funds.
The service is part of Fleet's growing emphasis on "electronic banking," the use of automated systems and services to better assist customers, Mr. Herlihy said.
Along these lines, the bank company last month brought its 100 salespeople in for a week of training with new laptop computers and financial planning software they will now use to sell investment products.
Fleet shunned off-the-shelf financial planning products in favor of devising a software program, with help from SEI Corp., that would educate customers in addition to offering specific investment advice, Mr. Herlihy said.
For example, Fleet's system illustrates how customers can lose, as well as gain, money by investing in mutual funds. "This really drives home the point about risks associated with investment products," Mr. Herlihy said.
He added that the system is in sync with regulators' wishes that bank programs - whether they rely on automated systems or transactions processed by hand - make ample disclosures about product volatility.
By themselves, Fleet's steps toward greater automation are not revolutionary, Mr. Herlihy said at a conference in New York sponsored by the National Investment Company Service Association.
But the initiatives do demonstrate the banking company's commitment to improving fund services as much as possible, he said. "Electronic banking makes it much more efficient for us to serve customers."
In another step toward greater automation, Fleet is looking at expanding ATM access to all Galaxy funds. Right now, customers can call up money market fund balances from the machines.
Fleet also hopes to introduce a telephone service that investors can use to transfer money among the Galaxy funds, Mr. Herlihy said.
Fleet managed 40 fund portfolios with $5 billion of assets as of Dec. 31, according to Lipper Analytical Services Inc., Summit, N.J. The bank company will boost its fund business through the planned acquisition of Shawmut National Corp., whose own fund operation includes 21 portfolios with $1.3 billion of assets.
Mr. Herlihy declined to discuss how the pending acquisition will affect Fleet's fund program. But he did say that Fleet's future plans will likely include some activity on the Internet.
The Internet is "very attractive" as a marketing tool for Galaxy funds, Mr. Herlihy said.
The banking company will probably wait a bit, until the young adults who are most comfortable with computers are into their wage-earning years, he said.
Fleet is taking the right approach by casting its lot with electronic systems that can make it easier and quicker for customers to deal with their funds, one analyst said.
The banking company is "doing the right thing," said Kurt Cerulli, president of Cerulli Associates, Boston. "Banks have to invest in the areas that will teach them the lessons they need to learn."