To beef up offerings to small-business customers, Fleet Financial Group last week opened 200 specially designed service centers in branches throughout the Northeast.

The Boston-based company plans 350 such centers throughout its 1,200- branch system.

Norman J. DeLuca, managing director of Fleet's business and entrepreneurial services group, said the centers are meant to improve relationships with customers and encourage them to use more Fleet products.

"The foundation of any business is retaining customers, and that's priority No. 1," Mr. DeLuca said. "Second is broadening relationships with those customers and bringing in new customers."

Fleet, with $85.5 billion of assets, said opening the centers cost $5 million. Most of the money went for training, in-branch promotions, and advertisements, Mr. DeLuca said.

The company is a major small-business lender but has been losing ground. Its $3.1 billion of small-business loans outstanding at mid-1997 made it No. 8 in the business, according to Sheshunoff Information Services, but the figure was off 6% from a year earlier.

The new centers represent "a sharper focus on how we are going to serve our small-business customers under the branch system," said Robert Higgins, Fleet's president and chief operating officer.

So far the centers employ 295 people, and Fleet officials are planning to hire more for the slated expansion.

Those centers opened last week are in Fleet branches in New York, New Jersey, Maine, and Rhode Island. The remainder will open next month in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Hampshire.

The bank will use the centers to promote business loans, cash management, payroll processing, and PC and telephone banking, Mr. DeLuca said. Special teller lines to speed service for small-business owners are also available.

Fleet has relationships with 400,000 companies that make less than $10 million in annual sales. These companies now use, on average, about two or three of the bank's products, Mr. DeLuca said.

The goal is to help the bank generate double-digit increases in small- business loans and deposits, he said. "We view this as a high-growth business."

Henry C. Dickson, an analyst for Smith Barney, said Fleet's small- business push makes sense. "Small business is a growing market and a tremendous opportunity for banks," he said.

One of Fleet's largest competitors in the New York area, Chase Manhattan Corp., spent the last two years revamping its branch services for small- business customers.

"We look at the branch network as our most important channel," said Frank Vela, Chase senior vice president for commercial and professional banking.

BankBoston Corp. also has small-business centers-one each in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut - that make meeting rooms, computers, and publications available to entrepreneurs.

But Pamela Ireland, BankBoston's director of sales for small-business banking, said the bank also views PC banking, automated teller machines, and 24-hour telephone call centers as important ways to serve the market.

"Small-business owners are looking for more than branch service," Ms. Ireland said. "We're there for the folks that are up at 2 in the morning."

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